NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) -
Following our Monday report that questioned whether State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson knew about a Las Vegas side trip by four of his troopers, the governor has launched an independent investigation.Gov. Edwards told us Tuesday he's asked his administration to conduct a full investigation into state police travel.
When the four state troopers drove a state vehicle 350 miles off course, to spend a night in Grand Canyon National Park and another on the Vegas strip, Tulane law professor Joel Friedman says, they broke the law.
"They are taking public money for work that was not performed," Friedman says. "F-R-A-U-D. This is fraud. This is a crime."
State Police superintendent Col. Mike Edmonson tried to tell us Friday that driving provided cost savings for taxpayers.
"We were going to rent a car when we were there," he said. "And one of the things I looked at, in fact... Maybe we could save some money... I don't have to pay them airfare."
When we told him flight tickets might have cost as little as $300 a piece, he responded, "Well, depending on when you bought that airfare."
Records show Trooper Rodney Hyatt - one of the four troopers who drove to the conference - registered for the mid-October event on September 14. Two weeks later, Hyatt's supervisor, Greg Graphia, bought a plane ticket for the trip. It cost less than $400.
Edmonson did tell us that Hyatt's wife also rode in the car with the four troopers.
Our investigation also uncovered the employees charging overtime while they may not have been working. Edmonson repeatedly sidestepped questions about that being potentially a criminal violation.
"I'm embarrassed by it," he told us. "I don't think it's right at all... I don't know that it's theft."
Edmonson says the employees will be forced to pay back overtime. But Friedman says simply paying back the money isn't enough.
"Don't tell me it's wrong; what are you going to do about it?" he says. "This is very serious. You mentioned so many different kinds of violations."
We mapped out times these employees used their gas card, and matched that to hotel stays, drive times and payroll records.
The night of October 12, the four troopers stayed at a resort hotel in Tusayan, Arizona, in Grand Canyon National Park. That afternoon, the troopers purchased gas at 2:43 in the afternoon in Kingman, Arizona. That's a gas station on the way to their next stop, Las Vegas. That gas station is a 2 hour-30-minute drive from Tusayan, which means the troopers possibly left their hotel around noon that day.
Still, according to three of the troopers' time sheets, they went on the clock at 6:00 that morning. The next day, gas charges in Vegas show they likely left their hotel around noon. But time sheets show they went the clock at 8:00 that morning.
"Somebody's heads have to roll," Friedman says. "You asked him is this a crime, and he said, 'It's appalling.' Well, it's a crime. We call it fraud. Many of them took public money under false pretenses. They took public money for private purposes."
Each time sheet, each expense report had to be approved by a supervisor. Capt. Greg Graphia approved the expense report for Rodney Hyatt. The deputy superintendent, Charlie Dupuy, appears to approve many of the other overtime and expenses.
"Totally unacceptable," Friedman says. "They know better than this. They know this is not appropriate. And the fact that they signed off is what tells me this is standard operating procedure."
As we first reported Monday, at least one of the credit card statements that included a Las Vegas and Grand Canyon National Park charge appears to be approved by Col. Edmonson. The signature on a second document, with Edmonson's name printed under it, appears to match the signature on the statement.
Edmonson told us Tuesday that's a signature stamp, his assistant stamped and approved the expense. She thought they were routine charges that were fine, he tells us.
Joel Friedman says the whole story sends the wrong message to taxpayers and troopers.
"How could people have respect for law enforcement when they do this sort of thing?" Friedman wonders. "And how can law enforcement people - most of whom, I'm sure, are trying to do the right thing and are serving the public and putting their lives... To protect us - and they see this kind of thing? I bet there's plenty of people in the rank and file who don't like this, because it makes us think they're all like that. And they're probably not all like that. But when they allow this kind of thing to happen and, if it goes unchecked, unpunished, then Katie bar the door. You know, anybody can do whatever they want to do."
Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered the Division of Administration Tuesday to launch a "full investigation" of the travel irregularities.
To be clear, Edmonson is saying his assistant reviewed the credit card statement and stamped his approval. If that's true, it raises even more questions about policies and procedures at State Police.
That would mean Edmonson is allowing a subordinate to review documents that he is responsible for, and allowing that subordinate to essentially sign his name - signing off on the spending of taxpayer money.