SLIDELL, La.— Four days ago Dr. Charles A. Preston was sworn in as the coroner of St. Tammany Parish. During his campaign to replace his predecessor, who recently went to jail, he pledged that he would run an office open to public scrutiny.
Two days later, a reporter asked whether he meant it.
“Sure, I’ll meet with you,” Dr. Preston, a Republican, said over the telephone. The next day, he gave the reporter a full tour of the forensic facility on Louisiana Highway 434.
“We physically opened up the office to the public,” he said. “We want to establish a volunteer committee to take the public on tours of the office.”
Monday’s swearing-in ceremony was open to the public and the media — the first time in years that the coroner’s office had been accessible to the public, Dr. Preston said.
The coroner’s office has come under scrutiny because Dr. Preston’s predecessor, Dr. Peter R. Galvan, pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal $111,376 in government funds over a five-year period from the coroner’s office in the form of excessive trips and sick-leave abuse.
Dr. Galvan, a Republican, resigned last October and reported to prison on April 11. He is serving a sentence of up to 24 months in a minimum security penitentiary in Pollock, La. Dr. Pramod V. Menon served as the interim coroner after Dr. Galvan’s resignation.
On Friday, a Louisiana State grand jury indicted Dr. Galvan on three counts of felony theft. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison on each charge, Laura G. Colligan, the state attorney general office’s spokeswoman, said. The indictment alleges that Dr. Galvan stole $584,969 from the coroner’s office from 2004 to 2013, based on an audit. His arraignment has not yet been scheduled
Dr. Preston will serve the remainder of Dr. Galvan’s four-year term, which runs to March 2016. He will then have the option to run for election to a full term.
The new coroner won a May 3 special election in which he gathered 58 percent of the vote, defeating Dr. Leanne Truehart, a psychiatrist and deputy coroner. Dr. Truehart, who is also a Republican, is an independent contractor at the coroner’s office. Her contract expires in June.
In 2003, Dr. Preston, 57, and a business partner opened Doctor’s Care, a walk-in clinic in this suburb of New Orleans. Before retiring, he worked as an emergency medical room physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and at East Jefferson General Hospital.
Dr. Preston campaigned on a pledge to restore honesty and transparency in the coroner’s office.
“This office doesn’t belong to me,” he said. “I’m just a steward over the resources of the office. The office belongs to the public. I’m retired. I can give it my full time.”
A legislative audit report conducted under the previous coroner, Dr. Galvin, found a litany of problems of noncompliance with state laws. The report recommended that each item in an inventory of coroner’s office equipment must be identified with a number. Other concerns were raised over accounting procedures in the office. Dr. Preston said he would address the recommendations.
A state-of-the art, 23,000-square-foot forensics department constructed in the fall of 2012 has a staff of 25. Dr. Preston said the majority of his staff members have longevity on the job and are eager to move beyond the troubled Galvan administration. “They’re happy to be away from the black cloud under the previous administration,” he said. “The work of this office has continued without any interruption.”
But he acknowledged that he faced a lot of challenges.
“It’s a disservice that the media continues to refer to the coroner’s office as embattled,” Dr. Preston insisted. “The staff members and the members of the community aren’t embattled. Dr. Galvan is embattled.”
Dr. Preston said he had no intentions to “clean house,” because his staff is skilled and runs day-to-day operations professionally.
Every death in St. Tammany Parish, which has a population of about 239,000, comes through the coroner’s office. The office performs roughly 300 autopsies a year.
All death investigations continued even with the controversy surrounding the coroner’s office, he said. “The staff hasn’t missed one death certification,” Dr. Preston said. “The vast majority of the things in the coroner’s office are working well.”
After the Galvan scandal, Louisiana lawmakers passed Act 181, a statute that requires the St. Tammany Parish Council to approve all expenditures from the coroner’s office. The council set the coroner’s position as part-time with a salary of $84,000, considerably less than the $200,000 a year Dr. Galvan was paid.
Under state law, the coroner’s office is a constitutional position that oversees death investigations and sexual assault investigations, and has mental-health and administrative duties. Dr. Preston said he would appoint a director of the mental-health division.
As one of his first orders of business after taking over the coroner’s office, Dr. Preston met with the Parish 911 board on Wednesday to determine ways to improve communication. During Hurricane Katrina, he said, “there was no cell service in the city. We’re trying to reestablish a radio communication system.”