Mike Edmonson, Louisiana's former State Police superintendent, deflected responsibility Friday for the infamous "side trip" that four of his troopers took to the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas two years ago, telling a disciplinary panel he found it "admirable" that the officers reimbursed the state after the excursion was exposed by the press.
Edmonson said he never "micromanaged" his subordinates and did not question the troopers' itinerary as they drove across the country to a law enforcement conference in San Diego. He was not interested in the details of their accommodations, he said, and trusted the troopers to follow state travel regulations and make prudent decisions.
"I told them to be careful and have a good time," Edmonson told the Louisiana State Police Commission, a civil service body considering an appeal of the discipline the troopers received last year from Edmonson's successor, Col. Kevin Reeves.
"There wasn't a reason for a formal document," Edmonson said of the planning for the 2016 trip. "There wasn't a reason for an order. We'd been on many trips together."
Reeves demoted and permanently reduced the pay of the two higher-ranking troopers on the trip, Rodney Hyatt and Derrell Williams, and issued letters of reprimand and caution to the other two troopers, Thurman D. Miller and Alexandr Nezgodinsky. Williams had been the head of the agency's Internal Affairs division but was removed from that role after the side trip became public.
Reeves took the helm of the State Police last year after the side trip and other controversies prompted Edmonson's abrupt retirement. The scandal led to two state investigations, including a scathing legislative audit that accused Edmonson of abusing his power and taking repeated handouts throughout his nine-year tenure.
The State Police Commission will decide whether to uphold Reeves' decision, reduce the discipline or overturn it altogether. The commission also could begin its own criminal inquiry and refer its findings to a local district attorney or the state Attorney General's Office.
The appeal hearing, which began Wednesday, is expected to conclude Monday with the troopers taking the witness stand to address the commission.
Edmonson's testimony had been highly anticipated, as the troopers based much of their appeal on the assertion that Edmonson approved their actions.
The former superintendent largely defended the troopers.
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For instance, he acknowledged receiving calls, text messages and photographs from the troopers during a circuitous trip that delayed the group's arrival at the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The troopers have said Edmonson recommended they take a more scenic "northern route" to California rather than the most direct course along Interstate 10.
But Edmonson told the commission he had not specifically approved the overnight stops the troopers made at tourist destinations along the way. They stayed at a casino resort that happens to be Edmonson's favorite hotel in Las Vegas and also visited the Hoover Dam.
"We didn't Google a map or ask Siri," Edmonson said, adding that there had been no detailed planning of the trip. "I thought the southern route to be long and boring."
While several other State Police representatives, including Edmonson, flew to the conference, the former superintendent said he believed driving to be most cost-effective means of traveling to California. He said he also didn't mind having a state SUV at his disposal to shuttle troopers to and from outings with vendors and law enforcement leaders.
Edmonson's only concern, he said, was the troopers claiming overtime for hours clearly unrelated to work. The state Legislative Auditor's Office determined the side trip cost taxpayers at least $13,000 in "unnecessary" expenses.
But Edmonson lauded the troopers for paying the expenses back once the side trip became public.
"I just wouldn't have charged for it," Edmonson said. "The overtime — it needed to be justified — and the cost of where they stayed. That was the only thing I had a concern with."
Edmonson's testimony contrasted sharply with that of Reeves, the current State Police superintendent, who told commissioners that "the public lost confidence in us because of" the side trip. The lasting damage has affected troopers' ability to do their job around the state and even hampered the agency's legitimacy in lobbying state lawmakers.
"The faith and confidence of the public in the Louisiana State Police has been eroded, and we're working hard to get that trust back," Reeves said. "I have not seen any acceptance of personal responsibility for mistakes made, for wrong decisions made, and that's something we need to see."
Reeves added that if troopers believe an order to be "unlawful, unethical or immoral, they have an obligation not to follow that order."
"I believe that the public has a right to expect of us that we will take the most direct route to wherever we are assigned to go," he said, "and that we will only claim expenses that are applicable and allowable under the state travel guidelines in getting there and getting back."
Edmonson stepped down shortly after an internal affairs inquiry found that he had told Hyatt to delete text messages from the trip — a potentially criminal act that Edmonson denied Friday during a lengthy news conference that followed the commission hearing.
The FBI has been investigating a number of alleged improprieties from Edmonson's tenure, reviewing travel records and interviewing pilots about trips the former superintendent took in state helicopters. The bureau also is following up on the legislative audit, which accused Edmonson of repeatedly tapping state resources for his family's benefit.
Edmonson said he has not met with the FBI and remains in the dark about the status of the federal inquiry. "I have legal counsel," he said. "I think that's the thing to do in a situation like that."
He refused to comment on the allegations outlined in the legislative audit, claiming he had been robbed of his opportunity to respond after The Advocate reported on a draft of the findings.
"I'm certainly not going to go into that right now because it's still a process in place," he said. "To sit back and look at that particular document, I just don't think we have the time to go over everything in there."