Governor Bobby Jindal has signed a bill into law, handing over control of the St. Tammany Parish coroner's finances to the Parish Council. It allows the council to set salaries and approve spending in the office.
The bill follows a series of FOX 8 investigations that questioned those salaries, spending and management in the Coroner's Office.
How much money should these public employees be paid? Right now, the deputy coroner, Michael DeFatta, makes $177,000 a year. Chief Death Investigator Mark Lombard makes $109,000. And the coroner, Dr. Peter Galvan, pulls in $200,000 a year.
"We are going to be working from a blank slate," says Council Chairman Jerry Binder.
Binder says he's not sure how much any of the staff there should be paid and needs to do more research. But he says several high-ranking employees with six-figure salaries could see their pay slashed, now that the council is in charges of the coroner's finances.
"My statement on what should different positions be paid… what is value of the job? What is the value of a forensic scientist, for example?" asks Binder. "I don't know that exactly right now. But we'll need to find that out. What should the CFO, who has resigned, what should that salary be?"
It's unclear what will happen with the coroner's salary. Dr. Galvan set his own salary, and paid himself more than any other elected official in the state.
The state constitution says a coroner's salary cannot be reduced during his term in office. State Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) authored the bill that put the office finances in control of the council. Back in March, he told us the parish still has the authority to lower Galvan's salary.
"We think that he never really had the authority," Burns told us then. "He may have exceeded his legislative authority in setting a salary, so perhaps any actions done subsequently wouldn't, in effect, violate that provision of the constitution."
But this week, the council chairman has a different opinion. "Our attorneys are telling us that the coroner's salary cannot be reduced during this elected term," Binder says.
The chairman says he's had preliminary conversations with Parish President Pat Brister about plans for taking over the coroner's finances. "Passing a bill and getting votes and the governor's signature is the easy part, I think," Binder says. "The more difficult part will be then getting in and doing the hard work."
The work may be hard because the coroner has refused to hand over records.
In March, the Parish Council passed a resolution asking Galvan to hand over his office's financial documents. But Brister tells us he never complied.
Galvan hasn't cooperated with the parish president, either. The state legislative auditor had to sue for emails. And even the FBI raided his office two weeks ago. Binder says, now that the governor has signed the bill, it's time for the council to be more forceful.
"We are going to walk in the door," Binder says. "My thinking is, the law says we're going to… have oversight over the finances and the budget. Then I gotta have information. We can work backwards to information, but I don't see anything that precludes us from walking into the building – it's a public building."
Binder says he expects the council to give taxpayers some relief and roll back the millage directed to Galvan's office, reducing the amount of money taxpayers send to the coroner. That will be one of the first steps, as the council now has been tasked with fixing the finances of the Coroner's Office.
"This is a big mess," Binder tells us. "And it's going to take time to clean it up."