Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday ordered an extensive audit of State Police travel practices, including trips taken by the agency's superintendent, as the fallout continued from the revelation that four troopers took a costly detour to Las Vegas last year while driving to a law enforcement conference in San Diego.
Edwards directed the Division of Administration's auditor to launch "a full investigation into travel by the State Police." The inquiry will encompass trips made before Edwards took office last year.
Edwards spokesman Richard Carbo said the governor found it "concerning, based on (news) reports," that the troopers were paid thousands of dollars in overtime and charged overnight stays at the Grand Canyon and a Las Vegas hotel in October during a cross-country road trip to attend the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
"It's our understanding that they're going to look for patterns and keep going further back if they find additional information," Carbo said.
The Governor's Office said the audit would be conducted separately from an internal investigation by the State Police, a probe that is expected to be concluded by the end of the week.
In addition to overtime charges, Carbo added, the Division of Administration will review travel expenses and the length of time of travel.
"He's waiting to get all of the facts," Carbo said of the governor.
Meanwhile, Col. Mike Edmonson, the State Police superintendent, has resisted calls to bring in an outside law enforcement agency to review the Las Vegas trip for potential criminal violations. The controversy also comes as state lawmakers are working to plug a more than $300 million budget shortfall for the remainder of the fiscal year.
State Police records obtained by The Advocate and WWL-TV have raised the possibility of payroll fraud, showing three of the troopers traveling in the state-owned SUV claimed to have worked overtime on travel days in which their drive time should have been only four to five hours. They also claimed to have worked well beyond the times of scheduled seminars at the IACP conference.
Edmonson said his agency will proceed accordingly if the internal inquiry turns up any criminal violations.
"I have time to do this right, and I want to give them the opportunity to explain their actions," Edmonson said, referring to the troopers. "But we've got to at some point move forward on this because there's so much other stuff going on."
Edmonson said he was not at all concerned that his own travels would be examined in the inquiry, calling his records "an open book." In his nine-year tenure, he has traveled extensively — sometimes overseas — to attend training sessions, receive awards and speak on the state's behalf.
"I have no problem with them looking at any of my travel," Edmonson added.
State Police records show that Lt. Rodney Hyatt, Senior Trooper Thurman Miller, Trooper Alexandr Nezgodinsky and Maj. Derrell Williams — the head of the State Police Internal Affairs Division — drove to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas on their way to the IACP conference, adding at least an extra day away from their regular job duties.
Miller, Hyatt and Nezgodinsky charged the state nearly 160 hours of overtime for the trip.
About a dozen other State Police representatives flew to the conference, but Edmonson allowed the four men to drive because he anticipated needing a vehicle in California to attend events away from the conference site. The superintendent has said he believed the cost would be about about equal to that of flying those troopers and renting a car.
But that approval ended up costing taxpayers significantly more, as receipts and time sheets show thousands of dollars spent on hotels, gas and meals, plus overtime. On one leg of their trip, three of the four men claimed to work 12- and 14-hour days, even though the drive from the Grand Canyon to Las Vegas is only four hours.
Beyond the drive time, the troopers also logged work hours well beyond the time the conference was in session. Nezgodinsky's timesheet says he worked from 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. — a 14-hour day — on Oct. 14, the Friday before the conference officially began. A conference schedule shows registration didn't open until 1 p.m. that day.
"They were not approved to claim overtime," Edmonson said. "They were not approved to spend one or two nights in Las Vegas."
On Monday, Edmonson announced departmental policy changes involving travel expenses, and he reassigned Williams to patrol duty pending the completion of the internal inquiry. He ordered Maj. Cathy Flinchum, the former head of Internal Affairs, to lead the probe.
State Police time sheets appear to show that supervisors who also attended the San Diego conference signed off on the overtime claimed by Hyatt, Miller and Nezgodinsky. Of the four troopers on the road trip, Edmonson's signature appears only on Williams' time sheets; Williams was not eligible for overtime because of his high rank.
But Edmonson's signature also appears on Williams' credit card statement and a purchase log that lists the hotel stays at the Grand Canyon and in Las Vegas. Edmonson said Tuesday that his administrative assistant stamped his signature on them after making sure receipts were provided for the expenses, not to signify the expenses were justified.
Edmonson said the internal review of the Las Vegas trip will be forwarded to the Governor's Office for review.