Lee Zurik Investigation: Full Senate to consider Galvan bill

La. Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville)
La. Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville)

A bill that will likely slash salaries in the St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office breezed through a La. Senate committee Tuesday. Lawmakers move one step closer to stripping financial control of the Coroner's Office from Dr. Peter Galvan, and the St. Tammany Parish coroner and many of his higher-paid staff could be close to getting their paychecks cut.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary B took four minutes to pass a bill that would put financial control of the office into the hands of the Parish Council.

Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) said, "The only change this bill does is to revoke certain financial management authority given to the coroner, mainly due to financial abuses of his office, many of which were in excess of the legislative authority."

Burns authored the bill in the House of Representatives and explained the abuses to the committee, reporting to them many of the findings FOX 8 News laid out in a series of "Body of Evidence" reports, including "A $63,000 tractor for the office; two take-home cars for the office, both assigned to the coroner; use of a public credit card by the CFO of the coroner to purchase groceries at area stores; and also trips to Napa Valley and a conference in Hilton Head."

Burns also highlighted Coroner Galvan's salary. He's the highest-paid elected official in the state. Burns said, "The coroner being paid $203,000 for a part-time job, which rises to $230,000 after cashing in unused leave time."

State Senator J.P. Morrell (D- New Orleans) quickly noted what we pointed out in our first story back in February. Even though he makes twice as much, the St. Tammany coroner does 11 times fewer autopsies than the New Orleans coroner.

Morrell said, "Our coroner in Orleans Parish handles 10, 20,000 more murders than y'all's does, and if he got wind of what y'all are paying, he'd probably want a pay raise. The sooner we can get this back under control, the better."

That will happen, if the full Senate approves the bill. Then it would go to Governor Bobby Jindal for his signature.

St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister urged senators to give the council oversight, as she told them the parish wants to make the coroner's finances transparent instead of continuing to allow the coroner to make decisions like raising his own salary from $75,000 to $200,000 a year.

Brister said, "This has been a black eye for us. We have been embarrassed by it. We want to correct it as soon as possible. It's not how we want our parish to be perceived."

Burns says the full Senate could vote on his bill as early as next week.