The Louisiana Board of Ethics has cleared four state troopers who were disciplined last year for taking a lavish detour to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon as they drove to a law enforcement conference in California.
The board's decision not to charge the men with state ethics violations, reached confidentially last month, comes as the troopers are appealing disciplinary measures meted out by the department to the State Police Commission, contending they were scapegoated in a scandal that led to the early retirement of Col. Mike Edmonson, the longtime State Police superintendent.
According to documents obtained by The Advocate, the ethics board concluded that Edmonson "instructed" the troopers to make overnight stops at those pricey tourist destinations and to follow a circuitous route to the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
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The board voted to close its file on the matter at its March 15 meeting, finding the troopers did not violate a state law that forbids state employees from receiving "a thing of economic value from a source other than the governmental entity for the performance of official duties and responsibilities," the documents show.
"Col. Edmonson was aware of and approved your stops," David Bordelon, an ethics board attorney, wrote in a letter to the troopers. "It was also revealed that your superiors within (State Police) approved your reimbursement and overtime requests."
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The so-called "side trip" took the troopers several hundred miles out of their way to stay at a casino resort and also visit the Hoover Dam. The state Legislative Auditor's Office found the excursion resulted in at least $13,000 in unnecessary taxpayer expenditures.
Edmonson insisted he had not approved the "side trip," but text messages and phone records ultimately showed that he and members of his command staff were in almost constant communication with the troopers as they traveled across the country.
Edmonson, who has been under federal investigation for months, stepped down shortly after an internal affairs inquiry found that he told one of the troopers who took the side trip to delete text messages from his cellphone.
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The Legislative Auditor's Office issued a scathing report last year alleging that Edmonson took repeated handouts and enriched himself at taxpayers' expense throughout his tenure. The report also raised questions about Edmonson's use of a state credit card to purchase thousands of dollars in meals without approval from the Division of Administration.
The audit further said Edmonson created a life of luxury for his family at taxpayers' expense, ordering troopers to chauffeur his wife around the state, tapping state resources to service his son's Jeep and even relying on inmate trusties to walk the family dog at the Department of Public Safety compound where the Edmonsons lived rent-free for years.
The troopers are likely to point to the ethics board's decision in a separate proceeding this summer, when three of them are scheduled to ask the State Police Commission to overturn the discipline they received in connection with the October 2016 "side trip." The troopers were disciplined in part for claiming overtime hours they did not actually work and for violating other agency policies.
Edmonson's successor, Col. Kevin Reeves, demoted the two higher-ranking troopers on the trip, Rodney Hyatt and Derrell Williams, and permanently reduced their pay, saying their actions were "unacceptable."
"Your indifference to the common sense notion that it is improper to claim (pay for) time when you are sightseeing or when you are sleeping has cast an unwarranted cloud of questions over this department and that of each and every one of its employees," Reeves wrote in his letter to Hyatt.
Hyatt, in his appeal to the State Police Commission, contends that he actually claimed fewer hours than he worked, and that he did not intentionally violate any State Police travel policies.
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"Col. Edmonson was fully aware of the route and was updated on the route the group was traveling throughout the trip," his appeal states. "After the trip, Col. Edmonson signed off on appellant's state credit card expenditures, which clearly reflected places stayed and the rates."
Hyatt was a lieutenant at the time of the trip but was demoted to sergeant. Williams was a major and head of the agency's Internal Affairs Division; he is now a lieutenant.
The other troopers on the trip, Thurman D. Miller and Alexandr Nezgodinsky, received a letter of reprimand and counseling, respectively.
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The State Police Commission is scheduled to hear a consolidated appeal from Hyatt, Williams and Miller during a five-day hearing starting July 11.
In their appeal, the troopers allege that Edmonson "engaged in an attempted cover up" of the scandal by "deleting texts and photos."
The appeal also claims the troopers' discipline should be reversed on procedural grounds because State Police took too long to complete the internal affairs investigation. It says the agency violated its own policies — and state law — by failing to request an extension of the internal investigation within 60 days of its inception.
"The department showed no regard for appellant's rights guaranteed by commission rules, by departmental policy and by the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights," Floyd Falcon, the troopers' attorney, wrote in a court filing.