St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office hopes to get whistleblower lawsuit tossed out

By Vimbai Chikomo | Feb 9, 2016

The St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office is hoping to get a whistleblower’s civil lawsuit six years in the making dismissed before a district judge on March 8. 

The St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office is hoping to get a whistleblower’s civil lawsuit six years in the making dismissed before a district judge on March 8. 

Former employee Laura King exposed corruption in the office that sent the parish’s former coroner, Peter Galvan, to federal prison for theft in 2014. Charles Preston is the current coroner. He was elected to replace Galvan.

Laura King and her husband, Terry, have been engrossed in a legal battle with the coroner’s office since they sued Galvan in 2010 alleging wrongful termination and are looking forward to finally bringing this turbulent chapter in their lives to a close.

“The past six years has been financially demanding and emotionally draining,” Terry recently told the Louisiana Record. “Our attorney did not take this case on contingency, so we have personally paid for all of the legal fees on our side. In addition, we have done much of the research and documentation, so there has been a large time commitment.”

Laura, a forensic laboratory manager hired by the coroner’s office to set up a toxicology lab for the office, claims she was fired in 2009 for questioning whether federal grant money intended for the lab should be used to purchase a laptop for Melanie Comeaux, executive director of the office at the time. Laura is suing for back and future pay.

The couple faced many hurdles trying to expose corruption under Galvan’s administration. They filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Ethics Board, and subsequently faced criminal charges in 2011 for talking to the media about their ethics complaint, which breached the confidentiality of the complaint. The charges were later dropped; however, the Kings sued challenging the constitutionality of the law.

They also sued to get the coroner’s office to provide public records electronically. Terry said the public office had initially attempted to charge the Kings $40,000 for the records. Although the Kings prevailed in both cases, the experience has had a lasting impact on them both, Terry said.

“Ultimately, this case and the aftermath of it has challenged our view of the justice system in St. Tammany Parish and the state of Louisiana,” Terry said. “We were very surprised at the level of cronyism and the difficulty that would be encountered in having regulatory agencies and law enforcement investigate legitimate complaints that were well documented. To say that we were ostracized in the community would be a gross understatement. Ultimately, the perception has changed with most people, but it was perplexing.”

Toward the end of December, the coroner’s office filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed. The matter will be argued before 22nd Judicial District Judge Reginald T. Badeaux.

“We don’t anticipate that they will be successful in the filing, but it’s the last hurdle before we go to trial,” Terry said.

In the motion for summary judgment, the coroner's office claimed Laura was never asked to break the law, but instead was asked whether the grant money could be used to buy a computer for Comeaux. The motion further says that Laura didn’t indicate to her superiors that her refusal to purchase the laptop was because it was illegal and contends that Laura was told to use the grant to purchase a computer for her lab assistant, as initially planned.

The agency also claims Laura’s termination was the result of insubordination and poor performance, and that this civil lawsuit is a "baseless employment retaliation lawsuit.”

Terry King said nothing could be further from the truth, and the facts surrounding the case speak volumes.

“The former coroner is in prison," he said. "The former CFO is indicted. The former chief death investigator is indicted. The formal general counsel resigned. In Jane Doe vs. St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office, a ruling expanding the production of public records to provide for electronic storage changed the law of the land in Louisiana. The statute concerning breach of confidentiality of an ethics investigation has been ruled unconstitutional and struck from the Louisiana Criminal Code. Would any rational person call that baseless? We will stand on the evidence that we have presented.”

Although Galvan is set to be released this May, the public office he once served in continues to deal with the ramifications of his actions, which have cost taxpayers an incredible amount of money -- $1.2 million in legal fees in Galvan’s final years in office as he fought federal charges and an additional $667,000 for the civil lawsuit. The office is being represented by Blue Williams LLP.

Should the case make it to trial, Terry King said he thought Galvan’s freedom would probably anger the public, but wouldn’t have any bearing on the case itself.

“I think it will have bearing on public opinion surrounding the trial because people will be mad about that – that we’re still in court, and he’s gone to prison and gotten out," he said. "But it doesn’t change our strategy at all."

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St. Tammany Coroner's Office State of Louisiana

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