ZURIK: Former employee details questionable spending of taxpayer money by St. Tammany Coroner’s office

Published: Jul. 19, 2023 at 11:13 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Keith Laborde fought back tears as he recounted his 11 years at the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office. Laborde worked as a morgue tech supervisor, assisting pathologists in autopsies. He says the job is emotionally taxing.

“I’m so mad. I dedicated my life. I sacrificed so much,” Laborde said.

He claims his boss, Dr. Charles Preston, ignored the sacrifices he and other workers made on the job and created a toxic work environment.

“I dedicated my life to this job. I love the people that work there, very good people. They get bullied every day by Dr. Sigillito and Preston is just it’s just a horrible place to work. The stress you go through because of the things you do,” Laborde said.

Laborde says along with a difficult work environment, he was recently forced to do something while on the clock that he believes was illegal. However, he says he feared he would lose his job if he didn’t comply.

st tammany coroner
st tammany coroner(rob masson)

Laborde described working on an autopsy one day when Deputy Coroner Dr. Robert Sigillito asked him for help.

“He says I need you for 15 minutes. I said, well, we are in autopsy. He says I still need you. So he put me in a car, his company vehicle, and drove down to the interstate on I-12 and says, alright, get out. We’re going to pick all the signs up. And I said, well, they’re not our signs. He goes, they’re litter. We’re not picking any other litter up, just the signs. So, we picked up all the signs. We get back to the office. And he says alright, you can go back inside. I’ll take care of the signs and he took them out and leaned them against the building,” Laborde recalled.

The signs the pair picked up were campaign signs scattered across the parish. The Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany group placed the signs along I-12, calling for Dr. Preston to resign.

Shortly after the pair picked up the signs, a photo of the signs leaning against the coroner’s office building began circulating on social media. Laborde says Dr. Sigillito and Dr. Preston were determined to figure out who took it. He says the pair called him into an office and demanded to look through his personal phone. Laborde claims when they couldn’t find the picture, they spent more taxpayer money to try to find the answer.

“They hired outside agencies to come in to go through all computers. They searched desks. They did everything looking for someone who had taken the picture. Our taxpayers’ money is paying for them to headhunt anybody in that office that would go against them,” Laborde says.

Laborde says after hiring the outside agency, he was again called into an office where Sigillito and Preston told him they believed he had taken the picture and asked him to take a lie detector test. He says when he refused, he was fired and escorted from the building.

The incident with Laborde isn’t the first time the coroner’s office has asked employees to work outside their job description. In April, FOX 8 interviewed Dr. Preston as part of an investigation into spending by the coroner’s office. During that interview, Dr. Preston had his head of death investigations record the entire interview with a taxpayer-funded camera.

Sit down interview with St. Tammany Parish Coroner Chuck Preston
Sit down interview with St. Tammany Parish Coroner Chuck Preston

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

That interview and documents obtained by FOX 8 showed the office was losing money by performing autopsies for outside parishes.

Laborde says the investigation into anyone leaking information from the office following the FOX 8 interview, and concerns that he was asked to do something illegal, led him to take steps to try to protect himself.

Lee Zurik: “Did you take the picture?”

Keith Laborde: “Yes.”

Lee Zurik: “And you took it why?”

Keith Laborde: “I took it just have something showing that they made me do something illegal. I sent it to a friend. And then the picture got out.”

Lee Zurik: “So, you didn’t post it?”

Keith Laborde: “No, I did not post it.”

Lee Zurik: “You took it to document that you were doing something wrong in case it came back on you?”

Keith Laborde: “Right. I did not do it to hurt anyone. It was to protect me.”

Dillard political analyst Dr. Robert Collins believes the concern for St. Tammany Parish taxpayers will be how the office is spending time and money.

“Total waste of taxpayer money, but also total waste of the focus and the attention and the labor and the time of the employees of the coroner’s office,” Collins said. “It’s obviously unethical. Some of it might actually be unlawful.”

Laborde says the environment Dr. Preston has created has forced many to search for new jobs, including himself, just years before he was supposed to retire.

“We have, I think, 34 full-time employees. I think 24 or 25 left in the last two years,” said Laborde.

Terry King, of Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Parish, filed a complaint with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office about the removal of the signs. The sheriff’s office provided FOX 8 with an initial theft report. King shared an email from the sheriff’s office that shows Sigillito was issued a summons for arrest in connection with the case on June 13.

FOX 8 reached out to Dr. Preston to request an interview regarding Laborde’s dismissal. After our second email, a spokesperson emailed us to say Preston respectfully declined to do an interview, but offered to ask Preston for a brief written statement. We asked for a statement on July 7 but didn’t hear back.

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