St. Tammany Coroner’s Office still fighting lawsuit by official fired by former coroner

Former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan is expected to regain his freedom in May when he finishes serving a state sentence for theft. But while his debt to society is soon to be paid, the public office that he ransacked as coroner is still paying for his actions, including an expensive civil lawsuit filed by Laura King, the former employee who first exposed wrongdoing in the office.

That case has yet to come to trial, but taxpayers have been hit with $667,000 in legal bills for it, and the final tab could be considerably more, especially if King, who was fired in 2009, prevails in demands for back and future pay.

The Coroner’s Office shelled out $1.2 million to lawyers during Galvan’s final years in office as the embattled coroner fought both a federal grand jury and state legislation that curtailed his office’s financial independence. But the costliest match by far was with Laura King and her husband, Terry.

Laura King, a forensic laboratory manager in the Coroner’s Office, sued Galvan in August 2010, alleging that she was fired after questioning the legality of spending federal grant money on a laptop computer for Melanie Comeaux, who was then executive director of the office.

Since Charles Preston was elected to replace Galvan in 2014, the Coroner’s Office has spent far less on the King litigation — $58,000, according to office administrator Ken Fielder.

In an interview Friday, Preston said the office dropped the fight Galvan had waged against Act 181, which gave financial oversight of the Coroner’s Office to parish government. Now, he said, the office is spending money to move the King lawsuit forward rather than delay it.

Both sides are gearing up. The Coroner’s Office, which is now represented in the case by the firm Blue Williams, filed a motion for summary judgment — i.e., dismissing the lawsuit — at the end of December. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for March 8 before 22nd Judicial District Judge Reginald T. Badeaux III.

The Coroner’s Office motion says Laura King’s litigation is a “baseless employment retaliation lawsuit” and that she was never asked to break the law.

Laura King was asked whether it was possible to use the grant money to buy a computer for Comeaux, the motion says, but she never indicated to her superiors that she was refusing to do so because it was illegal. In the end, it says, Laura King was instructed to use the grant to buy a computer for her lab assistant, as she had initially planned.

The 23-page motion for summary judgment portrays Laura King as a troublemaker who failed to get a toxicology lab up and running in the time expected and who was fired for problems ranging from insubordination to poor performance.

Terry King calls the motion a desperate attempt that the other side was expected to make.

His and his wife’s lawsuit, on the other hand, was not inevitable, he said.

“If the Ethics Administration and the Attorney General’s Office had done their job and arrested Peter Galvan, we’d probably have never filed a lawsuit,” he said.

Instead, the couple went through a bruising ordeal, trying without much initial success to bring wrongdoing under Galvan’s administration to light, including filing complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Ethics Board.

The Kings then found themselves the target of criminal charges. They had talked to the media about their ethics complaint, and in September 2011 they were charged in a bill of information by the District Attorney’s Office with breaching the confidentiality of such a complaint.

Those charges were dropped the following June, but the Kings sued to challenge the constitutionality of the law mandating confidentiality. They also filed a suit to compel the Coroner’s Office to provide public records electronically. The agency had tried to bill them $40,000 for records they sought, he said.

Both suits resulted in what Terry King called landmark decisions. U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman in New Orleans struck down the portion of the ethics gag law that applies to the complainant. In the other case, an appellate court ruled that all state agencies must provide records electronically, he said.

Their crusade also has saved taxpayers money, he said, pointing to the fact that salaries at the Coroner’s Office have been greatly reduced since Galvan’s tenure.

The pending lawsuit against the Coroner’s Office is part of holding people accountable, he said.

“We have done nothing that would ever rise to this being some kind of frivolous lawsuit,” Terry King said. “We have taken on a criminal organization and put the head of it in jail, with two others awaiting trial.”

Galvan pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of conspiracy to commit theft; he also pleaded guilty to state charges. He recently finished the federal portion of his sentence. Kim Kelly and Mark Lombard, who worked for him, have been indicted on state charges.

The Kings have never doubted that they did the right thing, Terry King said.

But the new coroner has a different take on the matter.

The Kings, whom he consistently refers to as the “people from Mississippi,” are not good-government watchdogs but are simply looking to win a lawsuit, he said.

Galvan wasn’t alone in trying to delay the suit, according to Preston. The Kings’ strategy was to wait until after the criminal matters were settled so that Galvan would be “deposed as a convicted felon in an orange jumpsuit,” the coroner said, and thus be less sympathetic.

The Kings came to him shortly after he was elected to ask that he create a job for Laura King, Preston said. They then told him they were seeking $1.2 million in damages — an amount that covered lost back and future wages for Laura King, including merit raises and benefits.

Terry King said that he and his wife met with the new coroner to discuss how he planned to handle the lawsuit. During the meeting the Kings asked if the Coroner’s Office was interested in rehiring Laura. Doing so would have limited the damages sought in their lawsuit, Terry King said.

Preston said he considers it an overreach to ask for such a large settlement.

He’s gotten rid of the toxicology lab, which is what King was hired to create. It didn’t provide faster results and was a drain on Coroner’s Office finances, costing five times as much to do tests in-house as to send them out, he said. He questioned why she didn’t point out to her then-bosses that the lab was a bad idea.

The money the Coroner’s Office is paying for the litigation will come from taxpayers, Preston said, noting that the office did not have litigation insurance under Galvan.

“This is not a righteous cause of action,” he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.

This story was altered on Jan. 25, 2016 to include the Kings’ explanation of a settlement discussion with Coroner Charles Preston.

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