Three Louisiana State Police troopers disciplined last year for taking a lavish "side trip" to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon while driving to a law enforcement conference in California offered their first public remarks on the controversy during their appeal Monday before the State Police Commission.
At turns resentful and conciliatory, they said they had been scapegoated for a scandal that embarrassed the State Police and prompted the retirement last year of Mike Edmonson, the agency's longest-serving superintendent.
The State Police Commission, after a full day of testimony Monday, deferred action on the appeal.
The commission, which acts as a civil service board for the State Police, emerged from executive session without a decision on whether to uphold, amend or overturn the demotion and the pay reduction that two of the troopers received after their taxpayer-funded excursion became public. A third trooper on the trip received a letter of reprimand but contends even that discipline was unfair.
The inaction means a decision will not be announced until next month at the earliest, when the commissioners are scheduled to meet in Monroe to hear another appeal.
"I anticipate that we will have some time at that meeting to go into further executive session for further deliberations," said the commission's chairman, Eulis Simien Jr.
The appeal hearing, which lasted four days, amounted in many respects to a referendum on Edmonson's leadership during his nine-year tenure.
The troopers insisted Edmonson not only signed off on the side trip but encouraged the troopers to take a scenic route to the annual International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference. Edmonson initially said he had not approved the trip, but text messages and phone records show he stayed in touch with the group as they drove across the country in a State Police vehicle that Edmonson wanted to have at his disposal at the San Diego conference.
"This wasn't about us," said Thurman D. Miller, the trooper who received the letter of reprimand. "This was about Col. Edmonson."
Miller, of Natchitoches, described himself to the commission as a "northern boy from what you call the Bible Belt." He said he was merely riding along with the other troopers and had "no idea where I was going, period."
He not only reimbursed the state for nearly $1,000 in "off route" expenditures but also worked more hours during the trip than he actually claimed.
"I didn't feel like I'd done anything wrong," Miller added. "My name has just been drug through the mud. What man doesn’t want to protect his name? If he doesn't, he's not a man."
The troopers said they had not knowingly violated State Police policy and acknowledged they had never been trained on state travel regulations in the first place. Those regulations are now strictly enforced at State Police, and the agency also tweaked a number of its travel policies in the aftermath of the scandal.
"I think everybody has benefited from some of the mistakes we made on this trip," said one of the demoted troopers, Derrell Williams, whose annual salary was permanently reduced by $15,000 as punishment for the trip.
Williams had been the newly installed head of the agency's Internal Affairs division at the time of the side trip. Unlike his colleagues, Williams did not claim any overtime on the trip and testified that he worked "way more" than the hours he actually claimed.
"I’m never going on another trip," Williams said, drawing laughter from the commission.
While the troopers said they had been mistreated by the agency, they did express regret at times for a side trip that delayed their arrival at the conference.
The circuitous journey took the troopers hundreds of miles out of their way and included an overnight stay at a Las Vegas casino resort and a visit to the Hoover Dam.
Rodney Hyatt, who was demoted from lieutenant to sergeant for his role on the trip, admitted to "poor planning" and called some of his actions "inexcusable." He said he decided to repay about $1,300 to the state because Edmonson's successor, Col. Kevin Reeves, "has it made it quite clear that he doesn't tolerate this kind of stuff."
The side trip prompted two state investigations, including a legislative audit that found Edmonson abused his power and took repeated handouts during his years at the helm of State Police.
The state Legislative Auditor's Office found the "side trip" resulted in at least $13,000 in unnecessary taxpayer expenditures.
The troopers appealing their discipline took questions from attorneys and the commission.
One commissioner, Brian Crawford, the chief administrative officer of Shreveport, resembled a prosecutor at times during the four-day hearing, referring to Edmonson's testimony as "contradictory" and grilling the troopers on their decisions.
"I blame Col. Edmonson for most of this mess," Crawford said. "He didn't do you any favors. But you guys have some individual responsibility."