Zurik: St. Tammany Coroner claims concerned citizen group, ex-employee conspiring against his office

Published: Aug. 2, 2023 at 11:05 PM CDT
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LACOMBE, La. (WVUE) - St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston says his office has nothing to hide when it comes to how it spends taxpayer money.

“There’s probably no more transparent, open and honest agency in St. Tammany Parish than the coroner’s office,” Preston said in a July 27 interview with North Shore radio station The Lake 94.7.

Preston took aim at Fox 8′s reporting, as well as the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany Parish, its member Terry King, and a pathologist who previously worked at his office.

In April, Fox 8 aired an investigation that showed the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s office lost money on autopsies done for other parishes. Documents showed St. Tammany Parish taxpayers were essentially subsidizing autopsies done for Livingston, Washington and St. Bernard parishes.

During an on-camera interview, Preston claimed the autopsies made $1.3 million for the parish. However, when asked to provide proof the extra autopsies were profitable for the parish, Preston gave our team a document showing only the revenue generated by the autopsies. The document showed $1.3 million in revenue, but did not take into account the office’s expenses tied to performing those autopsies. Profit is defined as revenue minus expenses.

Records obtained by Fox 8 show the St. Tammany Coroner’s office needed to hire employees, including a second forensic pathologist, to handle all the outside work. The pathologists made about $150,000 per year to perform the work.

During the interview on The Lake 94.7, Preston didn’t address that he had given Fox 8 a document showing revenue, not profit, and continued to claim his office made money from the autopsies.

“Over the entire period of time, we made over $1.3 million in profit,” Preston claimed. “That information was supplied to Lee Zurik before his first hit piece. And yet, of course, he ignored that and tried to mislead the public that the coroner’s office is losing money on autopsies. Overall, we made money.”

However, since Fox 8 started asking questions, Preston has stopped doing autopsies for all but one outside parish. His office still does autopsies for St. Bernard Parish, but Preston has raised the rate from $900 to $1,500 per autopsy.

Related coverage

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

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

Preston maintained that the claims his office is losing money are coming from people who are conspiring against him.

“Terry King has been really kind of stalking me in the coroner’s office, and trying to paint us like we’re some sort of organization of corrupt politicians,” Preston said during his radio interview. “And, of course, he has Lee Zurik on speed dial. So, it really appears … the sort of conspiracy among this so-called good government group really involves Lee Zurik, Terry King, our former Chief Pathologist Dr. DeFatta -- who, in violation of his contract, is now working at Jefferson Parish. I have to tell you that I’m happy to have that kind of bad blood out of the office.”

Dr. Michael DeFatta left Preston’s office in early 2023. When Fox 8 asked Preston why DeFatta was dismissed, Preston alleged that DeFatta had violated the office’s cybersecurity protocols. Preston claimed DeFatta resigned when asked about the incident.

But another former employee of the coroner’s office -- Keith Laborde -- tells Fox 8 that alleged cybersecurity violation involved rewinding the office’s security camera. Laborde says some in the office had concerns about how Deputy Coroner Robert Sigilito was treating a dog he was trying to train. He says they were worried Sigilito was hurting the animal, by using a leash to pull the dog off the ground by its neck as punishment.

Laborde claims DeFatta was fired after rewinding a security camera video to view Sigilito’s treatment of the dog.

Preston didn’t address the alleged incident in the radio interview, but said his office has done nothing wrong.

“But ultimately, this comes down to, you know, there’s a group of folks who like to wrap themselves in a mantle, but it’s really individuals Terry King, Lee Zurik, Gary Leonard and Rick Franzo, who have been working really behind the scenes, unfortunately with my former Chief Deputy Pathologist Dr. Michael DeFatta, to try and constantly leak inappropriate but potentially inflammatory information,” Preston said in the radio interview.

Preston released a statement Wednesday saying he’s still weighing whether to seek re-election in the fall. He says he will wait until the final day of qualifying to make his decision.

“By the time this term ends next spring, I’ll have served 10 years in this office, which is enough,” Preston said. “I’m very proud of our accomplishments for this agency and for the people of St. Tammany. That said, however, I remain committed to seeing the coroner’s office excel and to the citizens of St. Tammany Parish. Thus, I will decide on Aug. 10, the final day of qualifying, whether to seek a third full term. If a physician I believe can handle the varied and diverse demands of this office chooses to run, I will not qualify.”

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