State Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, falsely claimed more than $20,000 in sick pay from his employer, Southern University of New Orleans. And while Bishop has been forced to give the money back, it appears the senator won’t be held accountable for his actions.
Taxpayers fund Bishop’s $85,000 salary as vice chancellor of academic affairs for SUNO. Fox 8 investigative reporter Lee Zurik reported last November that Bishop wrongly claimed 122 days of sick pay over a three-year period as a SUNO employee. Bishop received sick pay in the amount of $8,600 in 2018, $5,400 in 2017 and $6,300 in 2016. But Bishop wasn’t sick. Instead, he was at the State Capitol working as a legislator.
“This is not an insignificant thing,” Tulane law professor Joel Friedman told Zurik back in November. “This is theft, misappropriation of funds [by] saying you need money because you’re home sick. “
After Zurik’s story aired in November, SUNO officials issued a statement saying, “Bishop agreed to reimburse any funds that may be owed to the university.”
But five months passed, and Bishop had yet to pay the university back. Zurik called SUNO on April 25 inquiring about the money. Two weeks after the call, on May 8, SUNO officials confirmed to Zurik Bishop paid back the money. Bishop wrote a check to the university for $20,516.35.
Zurik requested a copy of Bishop’s check and found it dated April, 29th, 2019. That’s four days after Zurik called SUNO officials asking if Bishop had paid back the money.
“For five months nothing happens?” Friedman asked Zurik. “Coincidentally four days after you communicate, then he pays?”
Not only were SUNO officials in no hurry to make Bishop pay back the taxpayer money he bilked from the school, they also appear to have no interest in holding the senator accountable for what he did.
“The university has acted grossly improperly, both in the very limited sanction they imposed on him, which is basically just pay back the money — but stay in a leadership role in the university, and then pay it back when you want to pay it back, and in fact don’t worry about it until somebody complains about it,” Friedman said.
When the story first broke, Zurik says Bishop refused to be interviewed. But the Fox 8 reporter caught up with the senator in the hallways of the capitol last week. Zurik asked Bishop why it took him so long to pay the money back.
“It took me a while for Southern to tell me when the check was accurate,” Bishop told Zurik.
But Southern University refused to give Zurik a copy of the audit showing when it determined how much money Bishop owed. It’s hard to believe SUNO officials needed five months to determine how much Bishop owed. It’s obviously more than a coincidence Bishop waited several months to pay the school back and only did so four days after Zurik’s follow-up call. SUNO officials may be covering for Bishop and refusing to take action against him knowing it could impact the school’s funding.
“Why do they continue to allow him to be at the university? There’s only one explanation. It’s because he’s a member of the state Legislature on a committee that diverts funds to the university,” said Friedman.
Zurik reports Bishop’s time sheets this year show no paid sick leave for his job at SUNO. Bishop instead took leave without pay while working at the Legislature. That’s a considerable pay cut for Bishop now that he’s legally filling out his time sheets.
SUNO officials had to know Bishop wasn’t actually sick the 122 days he claimed he was. Once, Bishop took 11 straight weeks off and got sick pay for it. On those sick days, Bishop was seen on video and live feeds sitting in committee hearings and on the Senate floor. Bishop could not have pulled off his bilking SUNO of thousands of taxpayer dollars without school officials looking the other way.
If a non-politician is caught taking money that’s not theirs, simply paying the cash back does not settle the matter. Nor should it for Bishop or the SUNO officials that looked the other way.
Email Dan Fagan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @DanFaganShow.