Lee Zurik Investigation: Galvan’s lawsuit just “a lot of fluff"?

The St. Tammany Parish coroner has sued the state of Louisiana, claiming a bill the governor just signed is unconstitutional.

Dr. Peter Galvan filed the suit in state court in Baton Rouge, trying to fight a bill that breezed through the legislature. It strips control of the office's finances from Galvan and gives it to the Parish Council.

State Representative Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) authored the bill after seeing our Body of Evidence series, which showed questionable salaries and spending inside the Coroner's Office.

Galvan's using two law firms, New Orleans-based Stone Pigman and Jacques Bezou out of Covington. The 20-page suit says the bill Burns got passed is unconstitutional.

"I think it's a lot of fluff," Burns tells us. "You've got well-respected attorneys who've filed it, well-respected litigators. But the first 60 percent or 70 percent of it is almost like a press release. They don't even get into any legal argument 'til the very end. Several of them are pretty specious arguments."

In the first part of the suit, attorneys write that, under Dr. Galvan's leadership, the Coroner's Office has had "shrewd management of the funds." The first 12 pages of the suit highlight some of Galvan's accomplishments as coroner.

Galvan's attorneys make a handful of claims in the suit. First, they claim that it would be unconstitutional to diminish the coroner's $200,000 salary.

We showed that Galvan is the highest-paid elected official in the state. The law says no coroner's salary can be reduced during his term in office. But Burns' bill doesn't cut Galvan's salary – it gives the Parish Council the authority to do so.

Burns says this is a sign that Galvan wants to insure he keeps his money.

"I don't think he's really in office for the people… you know, just looks like, for himself" Burns tells us.

The suit also alleges the bill doesn't provide the proper separation of powers, saying the council shouldn't have oversight over another elected official. And the council can't divert Galvan's money, since voters in St. Tammany approved his millage in 2004.

Galvan's former in-house attorney warned a legislative committee in April that the bill was unconstitutional.

"Two wrongs do not make a right," said Melanie Comeaux at the time. "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."

Burns says, after that, he double-checked with legislative staff and was assured it was legal. He says this is a final effort by Galvan to try and keep control of his office money.

"Every time I think I've seen it all, you know, in reviewing his office, it just seems to keep getting worse," Burns tells us.

Now a Baton Rouge judge will decide who has control of the coroner's money.