St. Tammany ex-coroner now faces state charges

Former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan is once again the target of criminal prosecution for allegedly using his public office to enrich himself, but this time it’s the state attorney general coming after him rather than the federal prosecutors who already put him away for two years.

A state grand jury on Friday indicted Galvan on three counts of theft of money from his office. The theft counts — all for amounts over $1,500 — are for making personal purchases with Coroner’s Office funds, illegally paying himself benefits he wasn’t entitled to and using a Coroner’s Office employee to fulfill his personal contract to provide medical services at the Slidell jail.

The seven men and four women who made up the grand jury filed into a courtroom in front of state Judge Scott Gardner about 1 p.m. Friday.

Galvan is serving a two-year sentence in federal prison in Pollock.

Assistant Attorney General David Caldwell is prosecuting the case because St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed’s office has recused itself.

In a news conference on the courthouse steps, Caldwell said the state looked at Galvan’s federal indictment and subsequent plea agreement and determined that the $190,000 in restitution Galvan must pay is nearly $400,000 less than the amount of public money he took.

“The main goal is to get the rest of the money back that the parish is due,” Caldwell said. “We really do want to get every penny. And we said from the very beginning that that is the goal of this investigation.”

Galvan pleaded guilty last year to a single federal charge of conspiracy to commit theft. A week after he was charged in October, a state legislative auditor’s report alleged more extensive wrongdoing on the part of the longtime elected official. Friday’s indictment echoes many of those allegations.

Although some of the new charges overlap with the crimes Galvan has already pleaded guilty to in federal court, defendants often can find themselves facing criminal charges in both federal and state courts. In Louisiana, theft is a felony, and defendants who are found guilty of stealing more than $1,500 can face maximum prison sentences of 10 years for each count.

“It seems like piling on,” said Kyle Schonekas, one of Galvan’s attorneys. “I guess they weren’t happy with how things turned out in federal court.”

“It’s disappointing that they did it,” said Billy Gibbens, another of Galvan’s lawyers. “But he’ll deal with it. He dealt with the federal case, and he’s ready to deal with this one, too.”

Caldwell said the state had let the U.S. Attorney’s Office know early on that it intended to pursue the case.

“There was some talk that perhaps we’d been piling on,” Caldwell said. “But I think that what people need to realize is that, under the concept of dual sovereignty, the state can pursue charges just like the feds, and if you don’t want to be caught between the hammer and the anvil ... our best advice is, ‘Don’t steal.’ ”

Caldwell said the majority of the money the state is pursuing stems from Galvan’s deal with the Slidell jail.

Galvan moved the contract to serve the jail from the Coroner’s Office to his private practice in 2004 but then did none of the work himself. Instead, he sent an employee, Mark Lombard, to the jail but paid him for his efforts with public money.

The bill of information charging Galvan in federal court dealt with a shorter time period and pegged the personal profit to Galvan at $50,000. It didn’t call out Lombard by name, instead referring to him as “Individual B.” Lombard has not been charged with a crime in state or federal court.

Caldwell said that based on the shorter time frame covered in the federal case, Galvan’s federal restitution was pegged at $50,000. But the real theft from taxpayers was closer to $350,000 over the life of the deal, Caldwell said.

Not only did profiting from Lombard’s service constitute theft on Galvan’s part, Caldwell said, but the Coroner’s Office employee was an EMT and thus not qualified to provide the medical care he gave to prisoners. As a result, Slidell could have found itself on the hook legally if something had gone wrong and a prisoner had sued, he said.

“In our view, and in the grand jury’s view, he owes the rest of that contract back,” Caldwell said. “You should not be able to perform a contract by illegal means and reap profits, in this case over $350,000.”

Federal prosecutors have taken no action against Lombard, who resigned at the same time as Galvan, or another employee identified as “Individual A,” who is clearly Kim Kelly, the office’s former chief financial officer. Caldwell said the state has no plans at this time to prosecute anyone else.

“Dr. Galvan is the head of the Hydra,” he said.

The legislative auditor’s report criticized Galvan’s work habits and noted that he took $160,679 in cash payouts for vacation and sick leave, treating himself as a full-time employee even though he rarely went to the office.

The indictment in state court accuses Galvan of committing theft by fraud “by illegally claiming and receiving full-time employee benefit payouts.”

The audit found that Galvan spent $52,491 on personal items — more than the approximately $30,000 that federal prosecutors alleged. Those included purchases for his boat and plane and meals, including alcohol. Friday’s indictment simply refers to “making illegal purchases of personal items with public funds.”

The state criminal case will have no bearing on St. Tammany Parish’s efforts to recover legal costs incurred by Galvan, Caldwell said. Last month, the parish dropped a motion in federal court to force Galvan to pay back an additional $200,000 his office spent on legal fees, which a parish attorney said were more of a personal expense than one on behalf of the Coroner’s Office. The state Attorney General’s Office views that matter as one that should be pursued in civil court, he said.

As for Galvan’s state pension, Caldwell said the former coroner took office before a state law was passed that allows pensions to be stripped from employees convicted of a felony. But Galvan will have to figure out how to pay the additional money that the state is pressing for, he said, and his pension is a potential source.

Whistleblower Terry King, who began digging into malfeasance in Galvan’s office after his wife, Laura King, was fired by the coroner, said he was pleased and grateful that the state decided “to go after (Galvan) in a monetary fashion.” He said Galvan’s corrupt oversight of his office cost far more than the legal action indicates.

Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report. Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.