Lee Zurik Investigation: Parish leaders cry foul over coroner cash-outs

The chairman of the St. Tammany Parish Council says, according to the personnel policy we uncovered at the parish Coroner's Office, the coroner improperly paid himself $177,000.

"They're obviously violating their own policy," said Chairman Jerry Binder. "They're obviously just operating at their will."

For nine years, Coroner Peter Galvan paid himself the extra money for unused vacation and sick leave.

"It is a lot of money, and I think that's what concerns the citizens most, is the amount of money we're talking about and how it was done," said Parish President Pat Brister.

We wanted to know how Galvan allowed himself to cash out the unused time.  We don't know of any other elected official in the state who can do so while in office.

So we went searching for any office policy on sick and vacation time, and received a personnel policy from 2000 -- Galvan's office told us it was a former employee handbook that is being re-written.

That policy handbook says any employee may be paid for unused sick or vacation time when their employment is terminated.  It also limits the amount of time you can cash out at termination: 100 hours of vacation and a third of the unused sick time.

"If the policy says that you cannot take it out annually, but only at the end of your employment or retirement, then you're, in essence, taking public funds for personal use," said Binder.

When we asked a staffer at the Coroner's Office if any memo or email exists that would instruct employees this policy manual was no longer valid, we got this response:  "I am unaware of any documents that indicate or instruct employees or any employee that the 2000 employee handbook and/or personnel policy is no longer valid or has changed."

That's important, says Loyola CPA Patrick Lynch, because if nothing replaced this policy -- if no record instructs employees they are now allowed to cash out vacation and sick leave at any time -- that means the 2000 policy remain the policy of the office.

"If he has the authority to amend it, well, show me what you've changed," said Lynch.  "If you don't, then this is the living document, isn't it?"

Other high-ranking elected officials in St Tammany agree with the Loyola CPA -- they think Galvan violated his own policy.

President Brister told us, "Well, it is the policy unless you cancel the policy… which I see nothing and they say they have nothing.  Or come out with a new policy or even an addition to the policy."

There's more.  We took a close look at the 2011 payroll at the Coroner's Office.  Galvan and four other high-ranking employees of his office cashed out unused sick and vacation.  The rest of the office did not, except for one employee who did so when she terminated her employment.

So it appears the 2000 policy applies to most of the office, except for the coroner and a few others who make six-figure salaries.

Just in 2011, those five employees including Galvan cashed out $101,966.90 in unused sick and vacation time -- according to this policy, improperly paid by the Coroner's Office.

"It appears to me to be, the higher-ups get to feed more at the trough," Binder told us.  "And the good hard-working people, let's say, of the Coroner's Office… well, this policy applies.  It's not fair."