Lee Zurik Investigation: Help wanted at the coroner's office

This Thursday night, the St. Tammany Parish Council may help decide if the coroner will hire a new employee for his office. It would be the first hire at the coroner's office since the legislative passed a bill that required Peter Galvan to get council approval on all salaries in his office.

The coroner has a help wanted ad for his office.  Galvan wants to hire a new executive director and pay that staffer a six-figure salary.

Council Chairman Jerry Binder says, "They've identified that person. The law says that they get to make the hire, the Parish Council gets to set the salary. And so, at our Thursday night meeting, we will be looking at the salary for that position."

Binder says Galvan hired a firm to do a nationwide search. He's looking for an executive director to replace Melanie Comeaux, who resigned.

Binder says, "We are looking into right now, through various sources, how does that fit for a person with that gentleman's experience. He has 32 years of experience in forensics, both in Alabama and Texas. Seems to be extremely well qualified. We're trying to find out what is the value of the job."

As executive director and general counsel, Comeaux made $122,000. Galvan wants to pay her replacement as executive director $7,000 less.

But let's take a look at Jefferson Parish. Their coroner, Gerry Cvitanovich, says their equivalent position makes $78,000 - that's $37,000 less than Galvan wants to pay his new executive director.

If the council votes to pay the executive director that six-figure salary, Galvan won't be able to use his reserve fund to do so. That's because Galvan handed over that money to the parish government. Binder says they now have between $5 million and $6 million - money that used to be in the coroner's bank account.

"The coroner maintains control of the operating accounts, which goes to provide him with working capital to pay their own billing, payroll, invoices, et cetera through 2013," says Binder.

Galvan and the parish have dueling lawsuits addressing that bill that passed in the last legislative session. Until a judge decides if the council can legally maintain control over the office finances, Galvan appears to be complying with the law that passed and is handing over money to the parish government.

Binder says, "This piece of the puzzle has played out well, in the sense that the surplus dollars, just as the law calls for, have been transferred over to us."

The council still can't control the overall expenses in the office, though. That includes money Galvan's paid for outside legal work.

In the past 12 months, Galvan has paid attorneys $569,791. Much of that money has gone to handling legal fights with a former employee, the legislative auditor and, now, parish government.

When you compare that to Galvan's historical office expenses, the number is startling. 10 years ago, in 2003, Galvan's total office budget was about $670,000 - just $100,000 more than his office spent in the past year on legal fees alone.

That money to attorneys includes about $212,000 to the Bezou law firm, $108,000 to Schonekas, Evans, McGoey & McEachin, $89,000 to Baker Donelson, $64,000 to Branton and Associates. and $55,000 to Stone Pigman.

When we ask Binder if he has any concerns about the large amount of money in legal fees spent by the coroner in the past year, he says, "I do. I think that we all do. But that's an issue I think that is eventually going to come up as more of a front-burner issue. Right now, getting five to six million dollars of surplus funds into our hands was really the first step in complying with Tim Burns' legislative law." Burns is the Mandeville legislator who authored the coroner's office salary law.

All of the above has us asking a question we've put to elected officials repeatedly during our investigation:

What is the coroner doing to earn $200,000 a year?

"That's been an ongoing question," Binder acknowledges. "Obviously I don't know the answer to that."

For most of our investigation, Galvan had an executive director, a chief financial officer, a deputy coroner and a chief death investigator, all making six-figure salaries.

Sources tell us Galvan rarely comes to the office - he has a full-time private practice on the side. And according to court documents, he has never done an autopsy, yet still pays himself more money than any other elected official in the state.

"The only thing we can do on our end is follow a legal process," Binder tells us. "I think we're going in the right path, we're doing what we can do. We have to let the law enforcement do what they can do, legislative auditor do what they can do… we're doing our part."