BR.lspcadet.082117   458.jpg

Louisiana State Police Superintendent Col. Kevin Reeves talks about the 36 Academy recruits of class 96 on the first day of a 20-week training program Sunday morning at the State Police Training facility.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

The State Police on Wednesday suspended a statewide highway traffic enforcement program and began a criminal investigation into three troopers accused of claiming extra-duty hours they did not work. 

The State Police superintendent, Col. Kevin Reeves, ordered a review of the program, Local Agency Compensated Enforcement, and placed the troopers on administrative leave after reviewing surveillance footage provided by New Orleans station WVUE-TV.

The station this week promoted an investigative series on the program, known as LACE, saying it would begin to air its findings Wednesday. 

The undercover footage appears to show the troopers "claiming hours for time they weren't working," said Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman. 

The troopers under investigation are Eric Curlee, a senior technician assigned to the agency's Emergency Services Unit; Daryl Thomas, a veteran trooper who works out of Kenner-based Troop B; and Byron Sims, a State Police polygrapher. 

It was not immediately clear how many hours the troopers have been accused of fraudulently claiming or how long they worked the extra-duty shifts.     

Reeves "was certainly concerned" by WVUE-TV's findings, Cain said, and ordered that an internal affairs inquiry begin after the criminal investigation runs its course. 

"We're going to step back and look at the entire program, its policies and procedures, in an effort to ensure the oversight is effective," Cain said. 

LACE for years has been funded by local district attorneys, who contract with the State Police and reimburse the agency for overtime and mileage claimed by troopers working extra-duty shifts in jurisdictions around the state.

The local governments keep the proceeds of the tickets written by troopers or deputies during the shifts. Under state law, the tickets generate fees and court costs that benefit public defender offices and other agencies.

The WVUE-TV series, titled "State of Unrest," includes footage of the troopers allegedly abusing the program, apparently by writing a full shift's worth of tickets in a relatively short period of time. Investigative reporter Lee Zurik told viewers that one of the troopers in question used LACE to earn "more than any other law enforcer in the state." 

"We spent much of the summer and fall on an undercover surveillance investigation and brought our findings to LSP," the station said on its website Wednesday. "If you've seen a state trooper near the Bonnet Carré Spillway or in New Orleans East, they're likely on a LACE shift."

Some of the shifts in question were worked in St. Charles Parish. 

"It's disheartening to hear that one or two individuals have claimed to have worked hours they apparently haven't worked," said Joel Chaisson II, the St. Charles Parish district attorney, who reviewed the station's findings.

"The fact that they might have written a normal amount of tickets to be expected in an eight-hour shift doesn't make me feel good if they were only out there for four hours." 

Despite the allegations, Chaisson touted LACE as "a very valuable tool for law enforcement in parishes across the state," noting that it frees local law enforcement officers to focus on other tasks.

The St. Charles Herald Guide reported in 2013 that some 80 percent of the traffic tickets issued in that parish stemmed from LACE, which the newspaper said "has up to four officers working in the parish at any given time throughout the day." 

"People know that when you come through St. Charles Parish, you need to slow down because invariably there will be a police presence on our highways," Chaisson said. "This is not just about revenue. It's about a police presence on our highways."

The criminal investigation comes on the heels of another misconduct scandal involving a group of State Police troopers who charged taxpayers for an unauthorized road trip they took to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon last year while driving to a law enforcement conference in San Diego.

The controversial trip prompted the early retirement of Reeves' predecessor, Mike Edmonson, and recently led to the demotion of two high-ranking troopers.

LACE and other forms of State Police overtime have generated scrutiny for years. A 2010 inquiry by the state Inspector General's Office faulted the agency for using inconsistent methods to document overtime.

The review found that some State Police troops around the state logged "very detailed" timesheets, while others used a different method to track overtime that often lacked details about the purpose for which troopers worked extra hours. 

The inspector general's inquiry followed an investigative report by Baton Rouge station WAFB-TV that found about 30 percent of State Police overtime stemmed from LACE. That report said Thomas, one of the troopers suspended this week, earned more than $80,000 in overtime in 2008. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.