Dr. Jeffrey Rouse admits he’s no forensic accountant. But the new coroner for Orleans Parish said he has found no evidence so far of financial misconduct in the books left behind by Dr. Frank Minyard, who stepped down in May after four decades in office.
What Rouse did find, he said Wednesday, was a jumbled records system that made it hard to figure out which cases were languishing for more than 90 days as frustrated families wait on a death certificate.
“There was no simple way to even know that date,” Rouse told the City Council’s Criminal Justice Committee, adding, “I have an office now in which we have no policy and procedure manual.”
Rouse said he aims to bring the notoriously underfunded Coroner’s Office into the modern era and regain community trust, and for starters he is asking the city to fork over another $1.2 million next year — a 67 percent increase over what the office gets from the city now.
He also said he plans to call in the state legislative auditor to dive into the office’s books.
“I have inherited an office that’s been underfunded for years,” Rouse said. “For the life of me I can’t understand how a city that (endured) the largest natural disaster in the history of this country did not end up with a state-of-the-art office years before, and adequate funding. But I knew what I was getting into, and I’m here to hustle.”
Rouse, a forensic psychiatrist who had run the office’s mental health division for several years, won a narrow election victory to take over from Minyard, an 84-year-old trumpet-playing obstetrician whose oversight of the office drew sharp criticism and who admitted his reluctance to take hat in hand and ask for more money.
Outside the council chambers, Rouse said Minyard, who endorsed him in the campaign, quietly left the office, which remains at a former funeral home on Martin Luther King Boulevard pending the completion of a new office now under construction. Intended as a temporary landing spot for the office after Hurricane Katrina, the old funeral home has bodies stored in trailers in the back. Without a toxicology lab of its own, the office has to mail samples to a Missouri lab for tests.
Rouse said he was greeted on his first day with nine pending lawsuits and a thin staff that got even leaner this week, when chief investigator John Gagliano, 70, abruptly retired. Rouse said it was Gagliano’s decision to leave after 44 years, although he declined to discuss the circumstances.
Appearing before the council with his new chief investigator, former District Attorney’s Office investigator Brian Lapeyrolerie, Rouse lauded Gagliano’s “legendary” service and said his departure would drain the office’s budget of $134,000 in unpaid leave and sick time he had accumulated.
With the city’s help, Rouse said, he aims to begin readying the office to meet national accreditation standards.
The office conducts some 1,400 autopsies a year — nearly 500 of them for other parishes — with a staff of fewer than 16 and two investigators on a total budget of little more than $2 million, Rouse said.
By comparison, he said, the Jefferson Parish coroner gets $5.4 million and has 34 employees while doing 575 autopsies, and the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office has $4.6 million for 262 autopsies with a staff of 23.
Under Louisiana law, coroners also are tasked with evaluating mentally ill people who may need to be committed to treatment, as well as overseeing examinations of sexual-assault victims.
Rouse, who praised his skeleton crew and said he needs to enlarge it, said he plans to raise more revenue on his own by raising the price to perform autopsies for other parishes.
The current rate of $300 has remained unchanged for years, perhaps decades. Rouse said he plans to increase it substantially, though he wouldn’t say by how much. He figures he can add $150,000 to his budget from that source and other untapped revenue pools, such as court fees he said are due the office but which Minyard didn’t collect.
Overall, the office currently reaps $300,000 in self-generated revenue, Rouse said.
A byproduct of raising the autopsy price for other parishes, he said, would be a reduction in an autopsy caseload for pathologists that far exceeds national standards.
“I have inherited an organization that is by necessity addicted to this money,” he said. “We need to keep doing it in order to stay afloat.”
A top priority, he said, is hiring more death investigators. Some of the extra $1.2 million he wants from the city would go toward adding three of them. He also plans to make it a round-the-clock office, with enhanced psychiatric services.
“I’m going to politick until the place is right,” he said.
City Councilman Jason Williams said Rouse was being modest “in describing what you were left with or what you found. I think it’s safe to say there were several measures, several problems, several issues with how the office was being run for quite a period of time.”
Last year, New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux’s office found problems with how Minyard’s office made and recorded supplemental payments to its employees and contractors, including a failure to issue them proper tax forms.
Rouse said that problem appears to be fixed but that he is awaiting a clearer picture of the office’s finances from the legislative auditor.
“I’ve seen no evidence of financial impropriety. I’ve seen no evidence of self-dealing,” he said. “However, when you look at the operation of the office as a whole, the (human resources) procedures, it’s beyond my personal capacity.”
For now, he said, the office is projected to be $250,000 over budget for the year.
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.