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Louisiana State Police vehicle (photo provided)

Two Louisiana State Police troopers avoided suspension and received only minor discipline for taking an unauthorized "side trip" last year to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon while driving across the country to attend a law enforcement conference in California.   

The troopers, Thurman D. Miller and Alexandr Nezgodinsky, received letters of reprimand and counseling, respectively, after an internal investigation determined they violated agency policy last year in taking an unnecessarily circuitous route — charging taxpayers for thousands of dollars in overtime — as they traveled to San Diego for the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police conference.

Disciplinary action remains pending against two other troopers, Lt. Rodney Hyatt and Maj. Derrell Williams, who also overnighted at a Las Vegas casino resort on the state dime. Both of those higher-ranking officials are expected to be demoted, at the very least, at the conclusion of the internal investigation, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the inquiry.

New State Police records released Tuesday revealed that Hyatt's wife accompanied the four troopers in the State Police SUV, which also made a stop at the Hoover Dam.  

The internal affairs inquiry determined Miller falsified his timesheets during the October trip, at one point claiming to have logged 88 straight hours, including 56 hours of overtime at a rate of $52.72 an hour.

"These hours included time that you engaged in activities such as sleeping and sightseeing," Lt. Col. Mike Noel wrote in the letter of reprimand, dated July 6.  

Miller wrote a check to the state for nearly $1,000 earlier this year to cover improper overtime and meals charges stemming from the side trip. But he appealed his letter of reprimand to the State Police Commission, contending the side trips had been approved by Mike Edmonson, the former longtime State Police superintendent who retired weeks after news of the Vegas trip surfaced.

Edmonson, before stepping down, insisted he had not authorized the troopers to take a route that took them hundreds of miles out of their way. State Police, responding to a public records request filed in February, said earlier this year that the troopers who took the detour apparently deleted every text message they sent or received during the 11-day trip, though it remained unclear whether the messages were intentionally deleted or purged or automatically purged. Edmonson also told The Advocate he had no electronic communications related to the conference.    

Miller, however, claims in his appeal that State Police brass had been "fully aware of and ... updated on the route utilized throughout the trip."  

"They had authorization to do what they did from the supervisory command," Miller's attorney, Floyd Falcon Jr., said in a telephone interview. "I think this thing has gotten blown up, and everybody is looking for cover." 

The lenient nature of the discipline meted out thus far drew sharp criticism Tuesday from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group that castigated Edmonson's leadership and called for "cultural" changes within the agency. Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor who is president of the group, said that Col. Kevin Reeves, Edmonson's newly minted successor, missed an opportunity "to send a message through the ranks that this type of conduct is not going to be tolerated."

"Miller ought to go out and buy a lottery ticket, because he's damn lucky a reprimand is all he got," Goyeneche said. "This is precedent-setting with this administration, and it's alarming that this type of misconduct is going to receive what I consider to be inconsequential discipline."

Lt. J.B. Slaton, a State Police spokesman, declined to comment on the reasons the troopers did not face harsher discipline, noting the inquiry has not been resolved. "It would be premature to comment at this time while the disciplinary process continues for other individuals involved," Slaton said, referring to Hyatt and Williams. 

The letters marked the first discipline handed down in a scandal that prompted multiple state investigations and a series of policy changes within State Police concerning troopers' out-of-state travel. Williams had been the head of the agency's Internal Affairs Division, but was quickly transferred after news of the side trips surfaced. 

State Police brass initially described the Vegas trip as an anomaly, defending the tens of thousands of dollars the agency spends each year to send troopers to conferences and other training opportunities around the country. But hundreds of internal travel records obtained by The Advocate revealed that troopers also improperly charged taxpayers for dozens of hours of overtime while attending an IACP conference in Orlando in 2014, and that virtually the same group of troopers had been attending those conferences year after year.

Edmonson, the longest-tenured superintendent in the agency's history, retired this spring shortly after Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered an extensive audit of State Police travel. That inquiry, headed up by the state Legislative Auditor's Office, is nearing completion, according to sources familiar with the matter.  

Newly released travel records show the agency paid for just a single employee — Reeves — to travel to a training last month hosted by the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association in Sandestin, Fla. The records show that Reeves had been invited to speak at the conference, held at the Hilton Sandestin Beach.

Miller's letter of reprimand also offered new details about the San Diego trip and the concerns that State Police had with the troopers' timesheets and meal reimbursements. 

Miller claimed to have worked every single hour from 6 a.m. Oct. 10 to 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 13 — 88 straight hours, including 56 hours of overtime. He again charged taxpayers for 30 hours of overtime on the way back from San Diego — this time billing 56 straight hours — and tacked on 36 additional overtime hours stemming from time he spent in California attending the conference. 

State Police also took issue with Miller's meal reimbursements during the trip, including three days in which he improperly expensed lunches that had been included in his conference registration fee.  

Miller submitted a personal check in March for nearly $1,000 to the Office of Management and Finance for reimbursement for meals and hotels in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and payment for several hours of overtime associated with those side trips. But he contends in his appeal that the letter of reprimand was "unwarranted and unjustified."

While he attended the out-of-state conference, Miller "had limited knowledge, very little experience and virtually no training relative to the details of handling multi-day, long distance, extended travel reimbursements requests," Falcon wrote in the appeal.  

"At most, he should have been cautioned because none of the alleged violations were intentional or made with knowledge and aforethought," Falcon added. "The investigative conclusions reached are not accurate, and the penalty imposed is excessive." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.