Lee Zurik Investigation: Galvan a no-show, sends staffer to House committee

"Who is the coroner?" asked Rep. Rob Shadoin (R-Ruston).

"The coroner is Dr. Peter Galvan," answered Melanie Comeaux, executive director of the St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office.

"Did he give you any reason why he is not here today?" asked Shadoin.

"No, he did not," replied Comeaux.

The exchange came as a state house committee heard testimony for a bill sponsored by St. Tammany Representative Tim Burns. It would put control of the finances of Dr. Peter Galvan's Coroner's Office in the hands of the Parish Council.

For the first time since our investigation began in February, we heard from an employee of the coroner's office, Comeaux. "I understand and I accept that changes need to be made in the Coroner's Office," Comeaux told the House Judiciary Committee.

A series of FOX 8 investigations showed the coroner paid himself more than any other elected official in the state. And for the past nine years, he cashed out unused sick and vacation time -- many in years he claimed no vacation on his pay stubs, although Facebook photos showed luxurious travel to Europe and Asia during the periods in question.

"To me the most shocking fact of these abuses of public trust, payroll irregularities and financial excess, is the sheer arrogance of the abuse, which is particularly insulting due to lean times for both families as well as government had to endure," said Burns (R-Mandeville).

Galvan's executive director told lawmakers the bill as written is against the law.

"Two wrongs do not make a right," said Comeaux. "I'm not here to defend the coroner; I'm not here to defend the actions of the coroner. Those things are being investigated by the proper agencies. But I am going to say is this bill, the way it's currently written, is unconstitutional. And passing an unconstitutional bill is not going to correct the wrongs or the alleged wrongs that have taken place in the Coroner's Office."

The Coroner's Office says it's unconstitutional because Burns' bill would give control of the coroner's finances over to the Parish Council, essentially giving an executive branch of government control of another branch. The coroner is part of the judicial branch of government.

Burns says he had similar concerns, but says his bill is legal. "I'm very comfortable of its constitutionality," he testified.

Comeaux told lawmakers not to punish Galvan, to allow the judicial system to do its job. The FBI, U.S. Attorney's Office and legislative auditor are all investigating the coroner.

Rep. Shadoin told Comeaux, "You also testify that there have been a lot of initials overseeing and investigating you. That concerns me. That seems to indicate that there is a problem in the Coroner's Office."

"It's so egregious, what the evidence shows," said Rep. Pat Connick (R-Marrero). "I know no one's been found guilty, but there's such a, in my opinion, waste and abuse in this office."

The committee unanimously supported the bill. Meantime, even after hearing from an employee of Galvan, we still don't have any explanation for all of the findings we've laid out over the past two months.

"I understand a list of abuses was brought to your attention: increased payroll, part-time job, a myriad of other things," Comeaux acknowledged before the committee. No one has been found guilty of any of this. Only one side of the story has been put out. The coroner has not provided his side of the story publicly."

Sources in the legislature say they were lobbied by people close to Galvan to vote down this bill. That lobbying could continue as the full house takes up this bill, possibly as early as next week.