Lee Zurik Investigation: Snack cakes, Chianti and your taxes

St. Tammany Coroner Peter Galvan and his public credit card receipts from two top-dollar restaurants.
St. Tammany Coroner Peter Galvan and his public credit card receipts from two top-dollar restaurants.
Kim Kelly, chief financial officer at the St. Tammany Coroner's Office
Kim Kelly, chief financial officer at the St. Tammany Coroner's Office

A source tells FOX 8 News that the state's legislative auditor has opened an investigation into the St. Tammany Parish Coroner's Office.

When we interviewed a parish councilman this week, he called for the auditor to look into Dr. Peter Galvan's office.  You'll see why in this investigative update.

Rick Franzo leads a St. Tammany Parish good government group called Concerned Citizens of Lacombe.  We showed him five years of credit card spending by the St. Tammany coroner and his office -- that's the coroner we showed you Wednesday night who, in one year, gave himself a 39 percent pay raise.  He's now the highest-paid elected official in the state -- last year he paid himself $230,000.

Franzo wondered aloud "Why we have such exorbitance, yet we have people that are taxpayers that are struggling just to pay their tax bills these days."

We couldn't track down detailed receipts for Galvan's priciest meals -- a $771 bill at Antoine's, and a $761 check at La Provence.  But the ones we did find are pricey enough.

Galvan spent $522 on his public credit card at Amis restaurant.  He and his guests dined on seared tuna, crab cakes, the venison special and a $45 dollar lobster.  They also had a Caribbean Cosmo, a strawberry mojito and two bottles of wine.

St. Tammany Parish Council Chairman Jerry Binder said, "I don't understand how any elected official in this state does not know the day they take the oath of office that buying alcohol through public funds is strictly prohibited.  That's kindergarten, grade 1 ethics.  You just don't do it."

Binder may know the law, but Galvan's office didn't follow it.

Galvan bought cocktails and an Abita Light at Houston's, three glasses of wine at Crescent City Steakhouse, three Jim Beam specials and one glass of Chianti at Christiano's, Dos Equis at George's Mexican Restaurant and, at one meal at N'Tini's, seven glasses of wine.

We can keep going on the alcohol.  At the Rib Room, the coroner and his guests drank five glasses of the house white, two glasses of another wine, three mint juleps, 2 Glenlivets (that's a malt scotch whiskey) and, at Ruth's Chris steakhouse, one $60 bottle of wine.

Some of this possible abuse was laid out by a former employee of the coroner's office, Laura King, and her husband Terry.  The Times-Picayune has also reported on thousands of dollars of the questionable charges.

We've been looking at the coroner for months, digging through every receipt available -- the questionable charges don't involve alcohol alone.  The office spent thousands of dollars on restaurant meals, many with no explanations of their public purpose.

Galvan even spent $2400 with an online flight school -- Galvan personally owns a small plane.

Chairman Binder said our findings prompted him to write a letter to the legislative auditor, asking for an investigation.

The auditor will find that the coroner's office even paid for a yoga instructor, who taught classes at the coroner's office to employees.  And Galvan bought a $63,000 tractor.  The coroner says it's used for maintenance at his office.

And yes, there's more.

Galvan's chief financial officer, Kim Kelly, made $133,000 last year. Kelly has been a frequent user of the public credit card and we have many questions about her spending.

Kelly used public funds to buy food at Rouses, Winn-Dixie and Target.  On a trip on Feb. 3, 2010, she bought Bunny brand bread, corn, macaroni and cheese and chicken salad.  On  June 12, 2009, she bought yet more Bunny bread, Tostitos, boneless skinless chicken breasts and smoked sausage.

At Sam's Club on June 5, 2009, taxpayers footed the bill for Famous Amos cookies, Herbal Essence, bananas, cherries, peaches, grapes and flavored water.  At Target on July 27, 2009, Kelly bought Chips Ahoy, Oreos and Little Debbie's.

These are just a few of the receipts from Kim Kelly, making groceries with a government credit card.

We want to ask if Kelly's been buying groceries for herself and her family but charging it to taxpayers.

"It looks bad, it smells bad, it's probably bad," said Carl Ernst with the Concerned Citizens of Lacombe.

The coroner's office paid for Kelly to attend a number of conferences.   For one, she spent a few nights at a San Francisco hotel, and then some time up in Napa Valley.    Another year, she started the conference in Hilton Head -- it ended in Savannah.

And in 2009, she spent $2000 to rent a condo in Gulf Shores.  We're not questioning whether she went to any conference, but we do want to know more about the condo.  According to one website on Gulf Coast real estate, the condo Kelly rented has three bedrooms and three bathrooms.

Why would the public need to pay for Kelly -- and Kelly alone -- to attend a conference, but rent a three-bedroom condo?

Spending in Galvan's office has tailed off the past two years.  But looking at the big picture, some St. Tammany taxpayers say it's a body of evidence that needs to be investigated.

Galvan declined our request for an on-camera interview, citing a wrongful termination lawsuit by Laura King.  But in a statement he sent us Wednesday, he said the $3600 on the public credit card were for fact-finding that helped save no less than $3.5 million on the new coroner building in Lacombe.  He called that "smart business."

In another development following the first part of this investigations, La. Rep. Tim Burns (R-Mandeville) told FOX 8 Thursday that he plans to act to repeal the legislation that gives St. Tammany's coroner the authority to set his own pay.  Burns sent this statement to FOX 8:

I am very disturbed by recent news reports detailing flagrant salary abuses in the St. Tammany Parish coroner's office. I plan to file legislation in the 2013 session repealing the provisions allowing the St. Tammany Parish Coroner to set his own salary and establish a fixed salary at a more reasonable level commensurate with the duties. When St Tammany voters approved a 2004 millage for the coroner's office, it was intended to help fight crime and not to enrich public officials.