St. Tammany Parish Coroner Charles Preston lost a round in his court case to regain control of his agency’s property. A judge this week refused to get local government to return the assets.
Preston filed a lawsuit in July to get township president Mike Cooper to comply with a 2021 Louisiana state law directing the township to restore financial control to the coroner’s office and return all property to the agency unencumbered.
It is 13 acres of coroner’s land which the community used to dig a detention pond near Lacombe, the dirt removed to create the coroner’s pond and water well. The local government agreed to let Tamanend, a private condominium, use the well as a reserve for its own.
But Judge John Keller of the 22nd Circuit Court said he could not simply order the community to perform a duty — to return the property unconditionally — as the coroner demanded. “The fact is that it has been charged,” he said.
Coroner’s attorney Paul Harrison told Keller his client was not seeking a monetary judgment because it would just end up on the books as uncollected debt. “We’re seeking back the assets,” he said, “or an agreement from the community to pay the coroner to use the land.”
control taken away
Harrison argued that the legislature went too far in 2013 when it gave the municipality financial control of the coroner’s office after Preston’s predecessor, Peter Galvan, was convicted of corruption.
Several department heads in St. Tammany have had trouble with the law, Harrison said, citing former Sheriff Jack Strain and former District Attorney Walter Reed. Both were also convicted on corruption charges, but the legislature did not transfer control of these agencies to the municipal government, he said.
The 2021 law essentially reverses the 2013 law, and Harrison said it shows that “someone woke up” and saw that there were problems with what had been done.
Harrison also argued that the 2013 law should only allow oversight and not oversight, but the local government used the coroner’s fortune, which was funded by a special property tax, to its own advantage. That included taking 13 acres of land “to dig a hole that doesn’t work. It’s a swamp in two senses of the word,” Harrison said.
The community of St. Tammany used more than $900,000 in grants from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development for the drainage pond, Preston said. Community officials have argued that St. Tammany could be forced to repay that money if they lose control of the 13 acres.
The community also let Tamanend use a well that was paid for with public money, Harrison told the judge.
Coroner has nothing
What the community was doing was either taking money, embezzling funds, or violating the constitution, Harrison argued.
“What does the medical examiner get for this? Nothing,” he said. “If the coroner doesn’t get anything for it, it’s a violation of the Constitution. This petition is designed to follow the law, not legislate from the bank.”
Keller said Harrison did a great job, presenting arguments that could be used in a damages lawsuit, but that a narrower legal issue — whether to direct the community to comply with the 2021 law — lay before him.
Assistant District Attorney James Bolner, representing the community, offered no arguments in Tuesday’s court hearing.
Preston said he plans to sue for damages but will also try to negotiate something with the community.
Before filing his current lawsuit, Preston said the Cooper administration refused to negotiate and presented unilateral cooperation agreements. The Cooper administration wanted Preston to sign an agreement before restoring control of the assets, but Preston has claimed that he will only do so afterward and that he is prohibited from giving away agency assets.
“I was hoping to avoid an expensive lawsuit,” Preston said. “Now we have to go the expensive route.”
But Cooper’s chief administrative officer, Gina Hayes, said Wednesday that the administration has always been, and remains, ready to settle the matter.
“In fact, five versions of CEAs were offered to the coroner from October 20, 2021 to February 18, 2022,” she said. The latest bid would have given him full ownership and only asked for access to the pond and fountain, she said, adding that both are operational and operational.
Access to the pond is required to avoid having to pay back the federal grant, and access to the well is required to avoid subpoenaing the Louisiana Department of Health and Human Services for violations, she said.