The Louisiana State Police troopers under investigation for taking a lavish detour to Las Vegas last year on their way to a conference in California apparently deleted every text message they sent or received during the 11-day road trip, but the agency has not determined whether they did so intentionally.
It is also possible, if unlikely, that the troopers went nearly two weeks without sending or receiving a single work-related text message as they drove across the country, billing taxpayers for thousands of dollars in overtime and pricey hotel rooms that were hundreds of miles out of their way.
A third possibility is that the messages were automatically purged from the troopers' cellphones under a customized retention setting that is neither spelled out nor forbidden by State Police policy.
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The uncertainty about the messages — sought by The Advocate in a February public-records request — is one of many unknowns surrounding the controversial October trip, which spawned three separate state investigations and hastened the retirement of Col. Mike Edmonson, the longtime State Police superintendent.
A review of text messages, were they available, might have shed light on how much other officials knew about the troopers' side trip.
The troopers who visited Las Vegas aren't the only ones who didn't save any messages from during last year's conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Edmonson and his second-in-command at the time, Charles Dupuy, also told the State Police they didn't have any texts from that time.
But it doesn't appear that the agency has done any checking to see if such messages exist.
"They just said they didn't have them on their phones," Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman, said of the troopers.
The newspaper's public-records request sought text messages sent and received during the time of the 2016 road trip as well as a more recent eight-day period in mid-February, before and after news of the trip surfaced.
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The State Police response to The Advocate's request is the agency's third bite at the apple. In an initial response, the agency's lawyers said the materials were being gathered and that it would take some time to collect them. Then, in an about-face, the agency sent a letter saying no texts were available because none of the six State Police officials in question "maintained state cellphones."
Edmonson disputed that statement in a phone call the same day that response was sent, telling a reporter he was talking to him on his state cellphone.
"That's completely mistaken," Edmonson said of the agency's claim.
More recently, the State Police told the newspaper that none of the officers retained any text messages from either of the two time periods.
One senior law enforcement official told The Advocate the troopers had sent photographs of the road trip to their colleagues, rejecting the suggestion that the group had not sent or received any text messages during the junket.
Even if the troopers intentionally erased messages that documented their visits to the Grand Canyon and a Las Vegas casino resort, they did not run afoul of State Police rules, according to officials. That's because the agency has no retention policy for state-related text messages, a lapse seen across state government that raises questions about Louisiana's adherence to its own public-records laws.
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"The challenge that we're facing is that we never directed our troopers to save text messages," Cain said. "It was something that just never came up."
Cain said the agency, before receiving The Advocate's request, had never been asked for copies of text messages under Louisiana's public-records law.
"People delete them," he said. "Some people are on a 30-day (purge) setting. Some people delete them more regularly because they take up space."
Troopers routinely exchange text messages during the course of state business, though texting is regarded within the agency as an informal means of communicating. State law requires that public records, including emails and other written communications, be retained for at least three years.
Even if a phone were set to have texts deleted within 30 days, the messages from the more recent span of time included in The Advocate's request would still have existed when the request was made — though they would have been purged by now.
The State Police acknowledged that work-related text messages would be considered public records unless they involved a pending investigation or were deemed otherwise exempt from public release. But the agency said it currently has no means of tracking or archiving the messages, a shortfall officials now are seeking to remedy.
"We certainly recognize this is an issue and are taking steps to address it," Cain said.
When officials send or receive emails from a public account, they are generally treated as public records, although officials can seek to have materials that are purely personal in nature kept out of a response to a public-records request. Typically, the decision about whether an email should be considered public or private is left to a third party, such as a lawyer for the agency.
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The newspaper's request stemmed from the Las Vegas "side trip," as it became known, an excursion that involved four troopers driving Dupuy's state SUV to the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego. The four were Maj. Derrell Williams, who was then the head of the State Police Internal Affairs Division; Lt. Rodney Hyatt; Senior Trooper Thurman Miller; and Trooper Alexandr Nezgodinsky.
They were among about 15 people the State Police sent to the California conference. Travel records show the agency spent more than $33,000 for airfare, lodging, meals, registration fees and other expenses for the conference.
Most of the State Police contingent flew to the conference, but Edmonson authorized the four troopers to drive there, citing a need to have a vehicle to attend events away from the main conference site. He said he did not sign off on the detour to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon.
The State Police launched an internal inquiry into the trip, which remains underway and which is expected to result in disciplinary action against some or all of the troopers involved. But the lack of clarity surrounding the troopers' text messages — and the state's seeming lack of interest in locating any such messages — raises questions about the thoroughness of the probe.
The agency appears to have taken the troopers at their word that they did not communicate via text during the journey. At any rate, it did not deem it necessary to subpoena their phone records, a step that could provide key evidence of whether any higher-ranking officials were aware of or authorized the trip.
Miller, who charged taxpayers 54 hours of overtime for the trip, told the State Police he used a personal phone on the trip and that he doesn't "retain texts on my phone for any length of time."
Some troopers who do not have state-issued cellphones receive a monthly stipend to use their personal phones for work, but work-related text messages sent from a personal phone still would be considered public records.
Edmonson, who frequently received text messages on his work phone, said he had not texted with any of the troopers while they were in Las Vegas, reiterating that he had been unaware the troopers intended to take a circuitous route to the conference. He said his state cellphone was set to delete text messages every 30 or 60 days.
"My phone did not keep messages," Edmonson said in a telephone interview last week. "It wasn't something anyone ever thought of."
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the State Police's lack of policies concerning text message retention could leave critical questions regarding the Las Vegas trip unanswered.
"You're dealing with troopers that are under investigation right now, and if a paper trail of text messages existed on their phones, that could be inculpatory," meaning that it could be evidence of guilt, he said. "What you don't know — and what we'll probably never know — is when these messages were deleted."
The State Police are not the only state agency lacking policies for the storage and retrieval of text messages concerning state business. Spokespeople for the Division of Administration and Secretary of State's Office both said their agencies do not have specific retention schedules for text messages.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Jeff Landry did not respond to a request for comment.
"There's no retention schedule anywhere within state government," Cain said, adding that officials are now looking at policies "that need to be developed to address it."
"We're looking at technologies," he added. "How do you capture this so that it's usable and searchable for a three-year period, which we assume the retention would be based on?"
Goyeneche said the State Police have been slow to update retention policies to reflect texting, a form of communication that has become more and more common — eclipsing phone calls and emails, for many users.
It's far from the first time that a government agency has been asked to provide text messages, however. Nearly a decade ago, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted and forced to resign in part on the basis of a cache of incriminating texts that showed he had lied.
Further complicating matters in terms of setting out guidelines for State Police is that some agency employees are issued state cellphones, while others receive $50 monthly stipends to use their personal phones for state business.
"We're looking at what method we provide our troopers," Cain said. "Do we get away from the $50 stipends and provide everybody a phone? How far do you bring that down through the ranks?"