Lee Zurik Investigation: St. Tammany coroner gives himself 39 percent raise

Published: Feb. 7, 2013 at 2:30 AM CST|Updated: Mar. 21, 2013 at 8:15 PM CDT
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We asked several Louisiana residents recently who they think the highest-paid elected official in the state is. Their answers varied, but no one got it right.

"A mayor?" one asked us.

"The governor?" said another.

Gov. Bobby Jindal makes about $130,000 a year.

"Landrieu," answered another person.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu actually takes home about $145,000 a year. That is a little more than the governor makes – but not as much as the coroner in St. Tammany Parish.

"You're kidding me," insisted one resident.

We are not kidding. According to our research, going parish by parish and city by city, you will find the highest-paid elected official of the state of Louisiana works on the North Shore.

In 2012, records show St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan earned a salary of $199,555.

Taxpayers actually paid him even more. Galvan allows himself to be paid for unused vacation and sick leave. So last year, he cashed out 40 unused days -- his total take-home pay was $230,736.

Compare that to the coroner in Jefferson Parish, who makes $72.000. The Orleans Parish coroner makes $100,000. And, in New York City, the chief medical examiner is paid $203,000 a year. Galvan made more than them all.

We showed the eye-popping salary to Carl Ernst and two other members of a St. Tammany Parish good government group, Concerned Citizens for Lacombe .

Ernst said, "It almost boggles the mind to see how unfair that is to the taxpayers."

Rick Franzo of CCL told us, "It should be concerning for everybody in St. Tammany Parish."

For more, look at the coroner's work product -- we'll compare salaries to the number of autopsies per year.

The St. Tammany coroner did 154 autopsies in 2011; Jefferson Parish, 531; New Orleans, 1761. So the St. Tammany corner does 11 times fewer autopsies than New Orleans, but makes double the salary.

In 2004, St. Tammany Parish taxpayers passed a millage that sent tax money directly to the coroner. Once Galvan didn't have to beg for money, his budget began to rise and so did his salary.

In 2000 he made $54,000. It grew to $75,000 and then, after the millage passed, he gave himself 18, 15 and 39 percent increases.

Franzo said, "You think about what he made in 2000… and we're up to 2012. Say, 12 years, and we've increased it by how much, 400 percent?" Laughing, he concluded, "That's the kind of job I want."

That year Galvan made $94,000. In 2005, his office received $600,000 in tax revenue. The next year, 2006, the millage money starting coming in and his revenue rose to $2.4 million and so did his salary, skyrocketing 39 percent to $131,000.

It's an excessive salary that the St. Tammany Council chairman says he has no control over.

"It's a major disappointment to the citizens of this parish," said Council Chairman Jerry Binder. "I can tell you state law says he sets his salary."

That may not be true: Galvan has been setting his salary, and it could be against the law.

To explain, we take you back to 2007. The legislature passed a bill giving more authority to the St. Tammany Parish coroner, specifically writing, "The coroner shall be solely responsible for the fiscal operation of the coroner's office, including all salaries or fees associated with the operation of the coroner's office."

State Senator A.G. Crowe helped author the bill to give Dr. Peter Galvan control over his money. But in a 2007 legislative committee meeting, Crowe testified that Galvan had control with an important caveat. Crowe told the committee, "This legislation will allow for the coroner to be accountable for his budget, with the oversight of the Parish Council of St. Tammany."

Crowe says if the law needs to be tweaked or clarified, he'll do it. But, he says, allowing Galvan to set his own salary was never the intent of the bill.

The state constitution is silent -- it doesn't say who sets the coroner's salary.

We dug even deeper, and found a court case from 1997 that addresses coroners' salaries, this one in St. Landry Parish. Louisiana's Supreme Court ruled, "The legislature provides parish governing bodies a choice regarding compensation of coroners." So according to this case, it's up to the parish governing body or council to determine how the coroner is paid.

The state attorney general or a court may have to be the ultimate judge, but an argument could be made that the St. Tammany Parish Council should be setting the salary of Galvan.

Chairman Binder says he would have never given Galvan a raise of $37,000.

"Look, it's egregious," Binder told us. "Doesn't happen in the real world." He said, before we reminded him that it did happen, in fact, in St. Tammany Parish.

There's more. Galvan also operates a private practice in Slidell, separate from his public job. We called his private office one day to see if he took on new patients. The operator there told us Galvan sees patients all day on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. On Wednesday and Friday, he works a shorter day -- he schedules his first appointment at 8:00 in the morning, the last at 3:00 in the afternoon.

If he's seeing patients in his private practice 5 days a week in Slidell, what hours does he work to earn his $200,000 a year at his public job in Lacombe? And if he works so much in his private practice, we want to know how he determined the sick and vacation time that he cashed out, pushing his total take-home pay to $230,000 -- more than the U.S. Speaker of the House ($223,500), the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court ($223,500) and the same take-home pay as the Vice President of the United States ($230,700).

Dr. Galvan declined our request for an on camera interview. The reason: a wrongful termination lawsuit by a former employee.

He did provide us with a statement. It reads, in part:

I am confident that salaries in the St. Tammany Coroner's office are commensurate with the credentials and work history of each member in this office. On a personal note, a significant amount of time has been dedicated to completing the new, state-of-the-art coroner's facility, which was financed by a 4-mil tax approved by voters in 2004. Over the past eight years, I have dedicated myself fully to building a facility that would stand the test of time and become a high-powered weapon in our fight against crime. Soon, we will showcase the facility that is a result of countless hours of research, meetings, planning, development, and forensic analytics. A budgeted $11 million facility could have easily ballooned to over $18 million with routine change orders, but because I personally met with many analysts, engineers, consultants, and colleagues, I was able to save significant money for the parish. The projected final cost for the new facility is approximately $7.5 million. It is smart business to employ approximately $36,000 over six years of fact-finding to save no less than $3.5 million and upwards to $10 million.


Next installment -- Lee Zurik Investigation: Snack cakes, Chianti and your taxes