When St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan was charged five years ago with stealing more than $200,000 in public money, the case was shocking to residents and other officials, in part because it seemed like such an aberration.
St. Tammany is known for low crime, good public schools, pristine waterways and piney woods — not for Louisiana-style public corruption.
Former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan is once again the target of criminal prosecution for allegedly using his public office to enric…
But in the years since Galvan pleaded guilty and headed to prison, St. Tammany has seen another powerful parish official fall from grace: 22nd Judicial District Attorney Walter Reed, who was convicted of spending campaign money on personal uses as well as personally taking money from a public hospital that was meant for his governmental office. He is appealing his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court.
And this past week, federal authorities who have long been investigating former Sheriff Jack Strain finally pounced, charging two members of his inner circle with a kickback scheme involving a work-release program. Though Strain has yet to be charged, it seems almost certain he will be: The newly released court documents plainly accuse him of taking kickbacks, and the two top aides appear poised to testify for the government.
The series of scandals targeting high-profile St. Tammany politicians "gives a whole new meaning to the term 'criminal justice,' " said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith said Thursday that the criminal charges filed this week against two of his predecessor's high-ranking d…
Two high-ranking former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff's Office deputies were charged in federal court Wednesday, the first victims of a larger pr…
Elected officials and business leaders are shaking their heads over what they acknowledge is a black eye for the parish.
"I don't know that St. Tammany has more or less people that have been convicted or charged with the things that we have seen," Parish President Pat Brister said. "But when one elected official is convicted and sent to jail, it puts doubt in everyone's minds."
That doubt makes it hard to persuade people that most elected officials are honest, she said: "It makes it difficult for us to do the job."
The public's wariness is reflected in a survey that the St. Tammany Chamber-West recently conducted of its members, in which respondents identified trust in elected officials and transparency in parish decisions as the top two public policy issues.
In that survey, 40 percent said lack of trust in leadership is the main reason tax renewals for operating the jail and courthouse repeatedly failed at the polls. Another 40 percent cited "too many taxes" as the reason.
"Trust is really low, and the anti-tax sentiment is very high," said Lacey Toledano, the chamber's executive director.
Goyeneche agreed that corruption has a corrosive effect, and that it could be seen in the tax elections. "Corruption undermines public confidence in every aspect of government," he said, although he pegged the beginning of public disaffection in St. Tammany to an earlier conviction, that of Mandeville Mayor Eddie Price in 2009.
Walter Reed, who relished his reputation as an unforgiving prosecutor during three decades as district attorney for St. Tammany and Washington…
"Perhaps this (the Strain probe) completes the trifecta of corruption," Goyeneche said, noting that Galvan, Reed and Strain all were longtime officials who served more or less contemporaneously and have now been replaced, two of them by political newcomers: Coroner Dr. Charles Preston and District Attorney Warren Montgomery.
"People on the north shore realize that corruption isn't confined to any particular jurisdiction," he said. "For it to flourish, you just need a community to think they are immune. On the north shore, for too long, that was the mindset."
No more. The Galvan case not only triggered an increase in public skepticism, it also spurred public activism. The self-styled government watchdog group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany took root in the wake of the Galvan scandal, beginning with an effort to recall the coroner.
Residents packed the Parish Council chambers, insisting on action — although the embattled coroner didn't heed the council's demands that he resign; he left office only when federal charges against him were imminent.
There was also a drive to get an inspector general for St. Tammany Parish. Although a task force created to consider the measure didn't end up recommending it, the end result was a state law, adopted in 2014, that created enhanced audit requirements for St. Tammany governmental bodies.
Even before the federal government's probe of Strain became public, voters turned the 20-year incumbent out of office in favor of Randy Smith, the Slidell police chief whose campaign stressed the need for new leadership. This past week, Smith decried the "good ole boy network" that led to the bribery scheme federal prosecutors have outlined.
Smith said St. Tammany residents want low crime, but not at the expense of ethics. "What people want is to be safe, not to worry about our own elected officials committing criminal acts," he said.
Preston said that when he first took office, the news media consistently described the Coroner's Office as "embattled." It took about a year for that term to drop out of use, he said, and only because of a concerted effort to make his office more visible in positive ways. He pointed to the creation of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program and the formation of a chaplain corps to go to death scenes.
Preston cited the "one bad apple" theory as part of the problem with corruption, with people wondering how far down it goes. "In my experience, it didn't go very far at all," he said.
Even so, his office's finances remain under Parish Council control, a change made after the Galvan scandal. That means dealing with parish bureaucracy, which slows things down, he said.
The Parish Council also refused to let him roll his millage forward for one year only in order to preserve the right to levy a higher rate, something he believes reflects their fear of voters' anti-tax mood.
Montgomery said the Strain investigation and the Reed and Galvan convictions, while sobering, are signs of a political system that is working. "The justice system is the foundation and the frame of the house," he said. "If the slab is breaking apart, the walls are crumbling or the roof is leaking, you have to fix it."
Unhealthy communities paint over those flaws or ignore them, he said. "It says something positive about the voters in the community that they are fixing the problems," he said.
Toledano agreed, saying the repeated high-profile cases are raising public interest and a desire for more accountability. "Not just here, but across the country, there's more voter awareness," she said. "People are paying attention."
Political consultant James Hartman also sees the string of cases as a sign of a system that's working to ferret out corruption. In a poll he took about a month ago, nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement "Overall, I think local government agencies are efficient, transparent and honest."
"I don't think we should wring our hands but clap our hands: Look at all the corrupt officials who are no longer in office because we took action," he said. "I've worked in various capacities all over Louisiana. St. Tammany is the only place I want to live."
Toledano thinks that's how most people see it. "There is so much good about living here," she said. "Nobody's going to move away because of (corruption), and I don't see that as being a reason someone would not come here."
This story was altered on Dec. 3 to clarify the wording of a poll question on confidence in local government agencies.