What happened in Vegas will stay in Vegas, at least for the time being.
That’s the upshot after news that when they took a taxpayer-funded jaunt to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, four Louisiana State Troopers apparently deleted every agency-related text message they sent or received during their 11-day road trip.
Even the State Police concede that text messages are a public record unless they’re exempt for a very narrow set of reasons outlined in state law. So on top of blowing tax dollars for their Western adventure, officers with the state’s top law enforcement agency possibly broke the law by destroying public documents related to the boondoggle.
That’s an especially grave stain on the reputation of an institution charged with upholding the law, and the public should be outraged.
The scandal emerged after the State Police sent some 15 people to the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego last year, handing taxpayers a bill for more than $33,000 for air fare, lodging, meals and other expenses. Most of those in the LSP party flew to San Diego, but former State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson allowed four officers to drive there, presumably so that the LSP attendees could have a car during the conference. Renting a car in San Diego would have been cheaper, especially since the officers on the road trip took a meandering route, stopping in Vegas and the Grand Canyon along the way.
Edmonson said he didn’t authorize the side trips, for which one trooper charged 54 hours of overtime. After the spending spree came to light, Edmonson retired from his post, but an official investigation of the incident continues.
After The Advocate filed a public records request for the text messages sent during the trip, as well as messages sent right after the scandal broke, officials offered varying responses, first saying that retrieving the messages would take time, then implausibly denying that any of the officers involved had state-issued phones, then claiming that none of the troopers involved had text messages on their phones from the time periods involved, declining to say if that’s because no messages were sent, they were actively deleted, or vanished as part of some routine purge of data.
One senior law enforcement official told The Advocate he’d seen texts from the travelers. That no one would have sent texts during such a lengthy trip defies belief.
Destroying public records is illegal, and every state agency should take seriously the obligation to save texts as they would emails and other documents.
Robert Scott of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a state watchdog group, acknowledged that this is a tall order, since texts often reside in “the cloud,” a network of servers beyond a single institution.
What hasn’t changed, in spite of new technology, is the public’s need to see what its government is up to – even, and especially – when public servants go on the road.
If taxpayers are footing the bill, what happens in Vegas shouldn’t stay there.