The Louisiana State Police in Baton Rouge photographed Friday, March 31, 2017.

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY TRAVIS SPRADLING

When news broke this year that a group of high-ranking state troopers had charged the state for a lavish excursion they took to Las Vegas while driving to a law enforcement conference in California, Louisiana State Police brass condemned the "side trip" as an unauthorized anomaly and launched an internal investigation. 

At the same time, the agency stood by its decision to send 15 people to San Diego to attend the October conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, portraying the event as valuable training that justified spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on airfare, meals and four-star hotels.  

Newly released records show 2016 was not the first time troopers treated the annual conference as a state-subsidized vacation, raising fresh questions about the prolific travel within the agency under Col. Mike Edmonson, the longtime superintendent who retired after the Las Vegas trip was exposed. 

The records show at least seven of the same troopers who spent the week in San Diego last year also attended the 2014 IACP conference in Orlando, a repeat guest list that critics said underscores the cliquish culture Edmonson cultivated during his nine-year tenure as superintendent.

Perhaps more alarmingly, two of those troopers charged taxpayers for 25 hours of overtime apiece while attending the Orlando conference, the documents show, a practice forbidden by the State Police in the wake of the Las Vegas scandal. 

"If you're not in the boys' club or the 'in crowd,' you were never offered the opportunity to go," said one longtime State Police official, who despite his leadership role has never attended an IACP conference. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be interviewed.  

The records, released in response to a public-records request filed in early March, are coming to light amid an extensive audit of State Police travel being conducted by the state legislative auditor.

That probe began after The Advocate reported in February that four troopers who drove across the country to the San Diego conference took a circuitous road trip that included overnight stays at Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Three of those troopers charged overtime for the trip, but according to Edmonson, they were ordered to pay it back after the scandal became public.

The Orlando records add new relevance to the state inquiry, said state Rep. Blake Miguez, R-Erath, who called on investigators to review the 2014 trip and others dating back to the beginning of Edmonson's tenure in 2008.  

"The state is in a financial crisis and, in Baton Rouge, we're talking about either cutting government services or raising taxes," Miguez said. "We need to determine whether there's some type of systemic problem within State Police, and I want to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent in the most efficient way possible." 

Among the troopers traveling to both the 2014 and 2016 conferences was Edmonson's brother, Maj. Paul Edmonson, who oversees the agency's Special Investigations Division. Another repeat attendee, John W. Alario, is not even a state trooper; he is executive director of the state's Liquefied Petroleum Gas Commission.

Alario is also the son of John A. Alario Jr., president of the state Senate and perhaps the state's most powerful lawmaker.

The younger Alario said he attended the law enforcement conferences to promote the state's petroleum industry, noting that some police agencies around the country have been converting their vehicle fleets to propane fuel.

But Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, questioned the value of sending any official to the conference who holds a rank outside of the senior command of a law enforcement agency. 

"This just shows that the State Police entourage was being selected based on their friendship with the boss," said Goyeneche, whose organization was critical of Mike Edmonson's leadership. "It shows an arrogance and a disregard for taxpayer funds, and I think it confirms that these trips were less about learning and more about partying and vacationing on the taxpayers' dime."

While the State Police sent 10 people to Orlando, the New Orleans Police Department had just four representatives at the 2014 conference, and their expenses were covered by the nonprofit New Orleans Police & Justice Foundation. The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, another large agency considered among the most technologically advanced in the country, did not send anyone to the conference. 

Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman, said he could not comment on why more than a half-dozen of the same troopers attended both the 2014 and 2016 IACP conferences. "We can't speak to the previous administration and what thought process they had," Cain said, referring to Edmonson's tenure. 

For his part, Edmonson said he was unaware of the overtime charged by the troopers, adding that he had not approved it. The conference attendees, he said, were chosen based on their positions within the State Police, which did not change from year to year. He said the agency's lieutenant colonels typically approved sending troopers to conferences. 

Edmonson also attended the conference, but his costs were covered by the IACP, according to the State Police. Taxpayers footed the bill for the other nine attendees. 

Most of the troopers who traveled to Orlando stayed in hotels like the Hilton that cost taxpayers more than $200 a night, accommodations that Cain said were in keeping with the conference rate. But three troopers — including Lt. Rodney Hyatt, one of the four officers under investigation for the 2016 Las Vegas side trip — spent the week in luxury vacation homes, State Police records show.

Hyatt shared a three-bedroom home with Frank Besson, who at the time was president of the Louisiana State Troopers Association. Hyatt received a $1,041 reimbursement from the state for spending the week at a property called "Tropical Dreams," which according to booking records sleeps 10 people. That rate was in line with or slightly less than the amount other troopers spent on their hotels. 

But Hyatt and Besson, who drove to Florida in a state vehicle, also charged taxpayers for 25 hours of overtime apiece during the Orlando conference. Hyatt sent an email in the middle of the conference alerting officials in Louisiana that he and Besson would be "adjusting our hours" for the preceding three days.

Earlier this year, Edmonson banned troopers from claiming overtime for travel or attending a conference "except for extraordinary circumstances approved through the Office of the Superintendent." That policy change was among several the State Police announced in the wake of the Las Vegas trip. 

Hyatt declined to comment on the overtime, saying agency policy prohibited him from discussing the trip. Besson could not be reached for comment. 

State Police sent one other state vehicle to the Orlando conference; it was driven by Lt. Greg Graphia. 

The Orlando records also include a receipt for a seven-night stay for nine adults and one child at "Reunion Vacation Homes," a reservation paid for by Capt. Kelly Dupuy, the wife of Charlie Dupuy, Edmonson's longtime chief of staff.

Kelly Dupuy's state email address is included on the reservation, but Cain, the State Police spokesman, said the documents show the home was only partially paid for by the state, in the form of a $1,613 reimbursement that Charles Dupuy claimed.

Cain, who also was on the Orlando trip, said the reimbursement for the vacation home did not exceed the amount Dupuy would have been permitted to spend on a week at a hotel at the conference rate. Dupuy's family appears to have stayed at that vacation home.

The total cost of the Orlando trip to the state could not be determined because the State Police records released to The Advocate did not include airfare for the troopers who flew to the conference. The incomplete records show the agency spent at least $15,000 on the conference without counting the overtime. 

"The thing that's missing here is a sense of accountability," Goyeneche said. "It demonstrates the reason that Mike Edmonson is no longer the superintendent of the State Police." 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.