Zurik: St. Tammany autopsies for neighboring parishes come at a loss for taxpayers

Published: Apr. 27, 2023 at 11:05 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - In a 40-minute sit-down interview, St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston suggested we take him at his word when he told us about his office’s finances.

However, our investigation found that documentation Dr. Preston initially resisted giving us shows one type of work is not a profit maker as he suggests, but a loss for taxpayers.

In August 2022, FOX 8 requested records from the St. Tammany Coroner’s Office, including salary information, check registers, payments to vendors, and other basic financial records. FOX 8 regularly requests such public records from public entities, and most easily comply. However, Dr. Preston called the request outrageous. In his initial response, he asked for $2,500 in order to compile and produce the records, saying it would take time and manpower.

However, when FOX 8 visited the office to inspect the records ourselves, it took the head of finance less than 30 minutes to export most of the records we requested.

Those records show St. Tammany Parish regularly provides autopsies for other parishes, such as Ascension, Livingston, Iberville, and St. Bernard, and charges them a $900 fee per autopsy.

“With just St. Tammany Parish, we had enough autopsies that we needed one and a half full-time pathologists,” Dr. Preston said. “So when I hired the second pathologist, I immediately started to bring in other business from other parishes because the marginal cost doesn’t change. The building is here. The electricity is here. The personnel is here. So they could either be doing autopsies, which is their specialty on a fee-for-service basis.”

However, the numbers provided by the coroner’s office indicate that this might not be true. Since 2015, the coroner’s office has performed between 250 and 300 autopsies from deaths in St. Tammany Parish. According to the National Association of Medical Examiners standards, a pathologist can perform up to 325 autopsies a year. In most years, one pathologist could handle the workload.

Despite this, Preston claimed the parish had made a seven-figure profit from these autopsies performed for other parishes.

“Over the course of eight years, like I said, we’ve made about $1.3 million,” Dr. Preston said. “We have made a profit of about $1.3 million. I think it might have actually been $1.5 [million].”

However, records indicate that the outside autopsies might actually be a loss for the St. Tammany Coroner’s Office.

Since 2014, the coroner’s office has received $1.3 million in payments for autopsies by other parishes, according to documents provided following a public records request. However, this number only represents revenue generated from each out-of-parish coroner’s office and doesn’t account for annual expenses incurred by Dr. Preston’s office, such as the salary and benefits for an extra forensic pathologist and morgue technician, which total around $250,000 a year.

Carl Morgan resigned from the coroner’s office in 2022. He says the parish may have lost between $1.5 and $2 million over the last seven years. He says St. Tammany Parish taxpayers are subsidizing autopsies for other parishes. Terry King with Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Parish says he doesn’t want St. Tammany taxpayer money going to other parishes.

“I write a check every year to the St. Tammany Parish government, I don’t expect it to be wasted on other parishes,” King said.

Two high-ranking employees in the coroner’s office confirmed to Morgan that, over the past nine years, those outside autopsies have actually cost St. Tammany taxpayers money.

In 2019, for example, St. Tammany performed 268 autopsies of St. Tammany residents and 149 outside of the parish. Those 149 autopsies generated about $149,000, but the parish had to pay an additional pathologist and morgue technician, which ultimately resulted in a loss for taxpayers.

Compared to other parishes, the $900 fee is low. Jefferson Parish charges between $1,200 and $2,000 for each outside autopsy.

For about six months in 2021, down one pathologist, Dr. Preston needed outside help to cover the work. He paid the pathologists $1,250 per autopsy. During that time period, each outside autopsy was a clear $350 loss for the office. Records do show Dr. Preston’s office recently raised the amount he charges St. Bernard Parish for autopsies to $1,500. Still, King questions whether the office is being responsible with taxpayer money.

“It makes no sense whatsoever,” King said. “Especially when you have the District Attorney’s office is underfunded, and other agencies are struggling to make ends meet, and you have this guy who’s just wasting money.”

Dr. Preston believes Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany is trying to get voters to reject a tax renewal that is on the ballot on April 29, accusing them of promoting “misinformation” and “fake news.”

Dr. Preston also criticized the timing of FOX 8′s report, since the tax renewal vote is just days away. FOX 8 typically does not run stories on politicians right up against an election. However, since Dr. Preston’s position is not on the ballot Saturday, but rather a renewal that gives his office money, we felt it would be a disservice to voters to hold the story.

Dr. Preston also had his lead death investigator record our entire interview, saying he wanted an unedited version. In the interest of transparency, we have also posted the unedited interview within this report.

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