Louisiana State Police investigate Lafourche Parish Coroner's Office over potential fraud

The Lafourche Parish Coroner's Office is under investigation by the Louisiana State Police for potential public contract fraud, according to documents related to the case.

Judge Rebecca Robichaux authorized a search warrant for the Coroner's Office premises. The warrant says investigators can search for all death records from 2008, the year Dr. John King began as the coroner, through May of 2023. It also authorized a search for the total number of autopsies performed during that time, including who performed them. It also states that that information can be sent to Detective Craig Rhodes via email.

The warrant alleges that the documents are evidence that Louisiana Public Contract Fraud, a felony, was committed.

Attempts made to contact King were unsuccessful.

A search warrant does not imply guilt. It only means police had probable cause to investigate.

Public contract fraud in this instance is generally defined as when a public officer uses his or her power or position to take public funds for his or herself, or to any partnership for which he or she is part of. A person convicted of public contract fraud may be fined up to $2,000 or imprisonment of up to two years, or both. Restitution may also be ordered.

The Lafourche Parish Coroner's Office, 123 Texas St, Raceland. Photo taken January 3, 2023.
The Lafourche Parish Coroner's Office, 123 Texas St, Raceland. Photo taken January 3, 2023.

Police have been investigating King since January and turned over their findings to the Lafourche Parish District Attorney's Office for review, May 12. The search warrant was sent via email to King's secretary, Maxine Dupre, on May 22. An employee said King ordered her to respond that employees would not provide the documents.

"Dr. King informed me not to give you anything," her email, viewed at the coroner's office by a reporter from the Houma Courier/Daily Comet, read.

An employee said it was her understanding that he later complied. As of June 7, no contempt of court charges were filed with the Lafourche Parish Clerk of Court.

The investigations stem from at least $75,000 in tax dollars that King was paid. Coroners in Louisiana are paid in one of three ways: salary, fee or both salary and fees. In 2008, when King began he was paid both a $25,000 salary and $250 per autopsy performed.

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In 2011, the Lafourche Parish Council voted to change this, striking out the fees but increasing his salary to $50,000 a year. The fee portion was a straightforward change and is where the $75,000 in question stems from.

After that change, King continued to invoice the Lafourche Parish Government for autopsies performed, and the government continued to pay him until October of 2022. Throughout this time, King increased his per autopsy fees multiple times, and when the per autopsy fee was raised to $500 in September of that year, Parish Officials noticed and halted all payments, according to Parish President Archie Chaisson.

King maintains he was not aware of the change to the ordinance, but Chaisson has cited state law that dictates that per autopsy fees cannot be less than $250 nor more than $300 at the discretion of the parish council.

In an interview with the Houma Courier/Daily Comet in January, King said the autopsy fees would go to whatever member of his staff carried out the autopsy, and that occasionally it was him. After Hurricane Ida, he said his staff was stretched thin, and that year he carried out the majority of the autopsies, which netted him $30,000 on top of his salary, according to his estimates.

The Parish Government has raised questions about additional funds regarding King's salary. This is because his salary is established by one ordinance, and it conflicts with a separate budget ordinance.

One ordinance established the payment of the Coroner's Office, which was amended to remove his fees and still lists his salary at $25,000. The second ordinance is a budget ordinance that exists for every department the Parish delegates funds to, and it is where King's salary is set to $50,000. These inconsistencies in the laws governing his salary have led to questions about further funds beyond the $75,000. Councilman Armand Autin attempted to rectify these ordinances March 28, but his ordinance was vetoed by Chaisson.

The coroner is an independent elected State official paid by the parish to perform autopsies and handle forensic investigations in crimes and other circumstances that might warrant it. The agency is responsible for providing death certificates, rape examinations and evaluating residents’ mental state.

This article originally appeared on The Courier: Police investigate potential fraud, Lafourche Parish Coroner's Office