Friday, May 10, 2013

St. Tammany coroner must conduct legal fight over email in Baton ...

St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan's legal fight to withhold certain email from the Legislative Auditor must be heard in state court in Baton Rouge, not in St. Tammany, a judge ruled Wednesday. Judge August J. Hand of the 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington said the coroner's office must make its case before the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

The coroner's office - which is under investigation by the Legislative Auditor after a series of media reports about freewheeling spending and other practices - has refused to give investigators direct access to the agency's computers, arguing that certain email are privileged and outside the scope of the auditors' authority. The coroner's lawyers offered to pull the email they deemed privileged and provide the rest, but the auditors refused.

The Legislative Auditor served the coroner April 16 with a legislative subpoena for the email records for Galvan and five employees, but the agency refused to comply on grounds that some email are protected by such things as attorney-client privilege and the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

On April 26 the Legislative Auditor filed a lawsuit asking the Baton Rouge court to force Galvan to comply with its legislative subpoena. Attorneys for the coroner's office responded by filing a motion in state court in St. Tammany asking the court to void the subpoena as it relates to confidential email or issue a protective order on the email.

The motion was before Judge Hand on Wednesday, but before hearing it he agreed with Legislative Auditor attorney Jenifer Schaye's argument that the proper venue for the motion was in Baton Rouge. A hearing is set for May 20 in the 19th Judicial District.

The legislative subpoena seeks the email records of Galvan and five employees: Chief Deputy Coroner/Pathologist Dr. Michael DeFatta, Executive Director Melanie Comeaux, Chief Financial Officer Kim Kelly, Chief Investigator Mark Lombard and Administrative Secretary Rebecca Caminita. Comeaux recently resigned her position, sources said.

The auditor's lawsuit says that the authority granted to the auditor covers all documents and records, regardless of whether they are confidential. "The auditor is required to treat any confidential information with the same level of care and responsibility as the auditee and to comply with all applicable law regarding such information ..."

In his motion seeking to void the subpoena, coroner's office attorney Kyle Schonekas wrote that the coroner is not objecting "for the purpose of obstructing the auditor's investigation."

"Louisiana law is clear that the auditor is not entitled to privileged information," it says.

Schonekas told Judge Hand, "We made a sincere effort to resolve these problems."


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