Charles Preston was sworn in as St. Tammany Parish coroner Monday, becoming the parish’s first elected coroner since Peter Galvan resigned in October and pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal public funds.
Throughout his campaign, Preston stressed the need for new blood in the Coroner’s Office, but Monday he praised the staff that kept the office running during the past 18 months, when revelations of Galvan’s misdeeds made the longtime coroner and the office’s operations a target of much critical media coverage and both state and federal investigations.
“This office has been functioning well,” Preston said, singling out interim Coroner Pramod Menon for special praise. “I am inheriting from Dr. Menon a fine office.”
Menon, appointed in November, said he was happy to hand off the office’s functions to Preston. He said he would be staying on with the title of chief deputy coroner but that his actual duties are still being discussed. Giving Menon that title means that if Preston is unable to perform the duties of the office, they would automatically revert to Menon.
Preston also inherits a state-of-the-art facility in Lacombe with DNA and toxicology labs. The building was constructed after Galvan persuaded voters to give the Coroner’s Office a dedicated millage. Office employees gave visitors tours of “nonsensitive areas” Monday — the public’s first real look at the building.
By offering the tours, Preston sought to distinguish himself from the aloof Galvan, who during his last year — as media reports of his lavish spending mounted — was rarely seen in public. His dramatic resignation and guilty plea in October ended a nearly 14-year tenure in the office, marked for the most part by easy re-election victories and, in the end, rampant controversy.
It was during his last year in office that revelations about his lavish spending on meals and personal items began to be reported in the media. In February, he was sentenced to 24 months in jail, which he is currently serving in the federal prison in Pollock.
Preston, a retired emergency care physician who lives in Slidell, handily won a May 3 runoff against Leanne Truehart, who currently has a $180,000-per-year contract to serve as the Coroner’s Office’s mental health director. Truehart said last week that she has tendered her resignation effective at the end of June, when her contract runs out. She did not attend Preston’s swearing-in ceremony.
Preston has said he plans to change the mental health director from a contract to an employee position. He is expected to ask the council to approve a good salary for the job — at least, he said, more than the $84,000 the council decided the new coroner would earn to start. Galvan’s salary was more than $200,000.
“For my position, the funding was pretty sparse,” Preston said. “I would hate to see them take a similar position with the director of mental health.”
Salaries at the Coroner’s Office must be approved by the Parish Council under a law the Legislature passed last year in response to revelations about Galvan’s rampant spending. Preston said he plans to work with the council to negotiate a resolution to that requirement.
The attorney representing the Coroner’s Office, Charles Credo, said Monday that the two sides are negotiating but that several issues remain to be worked out.
More than 100 people packed a meeting room in the coroner’s building to hear Preston take the oath. After the short ceremony, many of them moved to Preston’s expansive office, a vestige of Galvan’s tenure.
With a desk, a lounge area with couches and a small conference table, the room easily accommodated several dozen people snacking on finger sandwiches and chicken fingers.
“I plan to be in a little before 9 a.m.,” Preston said. “I am very excited.”