NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Our investigation into a longtime Louisiana lawmaker began because of curiosity. Now, we’ll show you how our series on State Sen. Wesley Bishop started and some other interesting findings we discovered along the way.
In May, we reported that Bishop worked as a lobbyist for the Middleberg Riddle Group - a law firm hired by Harrah’s Casino. Harrah’s was trying to push through a new long-term deal with the state. At the same time, our sources told us Bishop was involved in negotiations with Harrah’s, working on the state’s behalf.
So, while one partner at Middleberg lobbied on behalf of Harrah's, the state senator negotiated on the other side of the table and would eventually vote on the bill.
“I can tell you this,” said U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, “there’s an appearance of impropriety.”
To prepare for that story, we inspected a financial disclosure form Bishop files with the state every year. On it, we noticed Bishop had three jobs: lawmaker, attorney, and vice chancellor at Southern University New Orleans, which is a public university.
We wanted to see how Bishop juggled the three jobs - mostly how he fulfilled his SUNO responsibilities while working as a lawmaker and attorney. So, we filed a public records request with SUNO, asking for his time sheets. That’s when we noticed Bishop used a large amount of sick time during the legislative session.
We decided to dig deeper and started the exhaustive task of reviewing hundreds of hours of video from the legislative session. Every minute of every meeting is archived online. For each of the 122 days Bishop called in sick at SUNO in 2017 and 2018, we searched and found proof of Bishop being in Baton Rouge. It’s against SUNO policy and state law to use sick time to fulfill legislative duties.
The state has a generous sick leave policy. Bishop currently earns 24 sick days annually and can roll over unused sick time year to year. According to the Southern University System, Bishop has accrued 285 sick days. Bishop’s been a SUNO employee since 1995. If he retires from SUNO, he may get paid for 37.5 of those unused sick days.
Bishop told us he used his sick time to attend the session because a 1981 attorney general opinion allowed him to do so. But legal experts say he’s wrong.
As we reviewed Bishop’s time sheets, another question emerged. In 2015 Bishop used annual leave - also known as vacation time - for the legislative session, which the law allows. In 2016, he took leave without pay, but SUNO paid him for many of those days. When we examined Bishop’s annual leave history, it became apparent in 2017 and 2018 he did not have enough vacation time to cover the days he needed to be in Baton Rouge for the Legislature.
“He didn’t have enough days to attend the legislative session out of his bank,” local CPA Patrick Lynch said.
Bishop told us he only started using sick leave after he was informed of the attorney general opinion in April 2016. However, a look at his time sheets for 2017 shows Bishop used 15 days of annual leave in April for the legislative session - one year after he alleged he learned of this attorney general opinion. Bishop used annual leave for the first week of May 2017, too.
In other words, although Bishop claimed he knew he was allowed to use sick time, he still used annual leave to cover his time in the State Capitol - at least at first.
According to our calculations, on May 5, 2017, Bishop had exhausted all of his annual leave time and had no vacation days left. It just so happens, that’s when Bishop started using sick time to attend the legislative session.
As the inspector general began to investigate Bishop, a legal expert and CPA said Bishop may have committed payroll fraud. But one state law enforcer told us of another potential crime the inspector general may look at: filing false public records. This charge covers any document containing a false statement or false representation of a material fact.
Anyone who commits this crime could spent time in jail and pay thousands of dollars in fines.