Zurik: Edmonson may have signed off on troopers’ Vegas stop
NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But for four employees of Louisiana State Police, the trip from Point A to Point B comes with a 350-mile detour, via Sin City.
Now signatures on internal documents, approving the travel on your dime, may have serious implications for the public staff involved.
In October 2016, during the state's budget crunch, LSP sent 17 people to a four-day conference in San Diego for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. When you calculate salaries, overtime, meals, flights and hotels, the total cost comes to around $70,000.
But four employees' trek out west raises questions about an organization where integrity is a core value.
LSP sent these four employees - Derrell Williams, Rodney Hyatt, Thurman Miller and Alexandr Nezgodinsky - to the conference in a State Police vehicle. They drove from Baton Rouge to San Diego.
"We were going to rent a car when we were there," said Col. Mike Edmonson, superintendent of LSP, in an interview with FOX 8 Friday. "And one of the things I looked at, in fact... Maybe we could save some money by allowing these individuals... I don't have to pay them airfare."
When you calculate the troopers' salaries, meals, hotels and gas, you find the drive cost State Police - and the taxpayers who support them - $19,000. That doesn't include the costs once they reached San Diego.
Comparatively, flying instead of driving would have cost a total of $5,000 - and that includes a car rental in San Diego.
When we told Edmonson flights might have cost as little as $300 a piece, he responded, "Well, depending on when you bought that airfare... I understand that but let me tell you something, I don't agree with it. "
But someone approved the trip.
"Looking into that now," he said when we asked who cleared it. "It's ultimately going to rest on me. Ultimately, I knew that they were driving there."
But the troopers' drive to San Diego took a detour through northern Texas one night, at a resort town in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona the next night, and to Las Vegas on the third night.
The troopers spent one night of the four-day trek out west at Las Vegas' Palazzo Hotel. It took four days to get to San Diego.
"Unacceptable, isn't it?" Edmonson responded.
On day three of the trip, the four drove from Tusayan, Arizona to Las Vegas. According to Google Maps, that's a 269-mile trip, about four hours. But three of the state troopers put in for a 12-hour work day.
The next day, they drove south from Las Vegas to San Diego - 332 miles, just a five-hour drive. Two troopers put in for a 14-hour workday, another 12 hours.
"I'm embarrassed by it," Edmonson told us. "I don't think it's right at all... I don't know that it's theft."
We pressed the LSP head on the 12- and 14-hour work shifts noted in the time sheets. "It's appalling and it's embarrassing," he told us. "I'll look into the whole thing and let you know. I mean, that's something that... I don't think it's criminal. I don't think the intention on part of that is."
The drive to San Diego took four days; their return to Baton Rouge took just three. They decided to take a straight line back, driving mostly Interstate 10, saving about 350 miles on the return trip.
Gas for the Ford Expedition alone cost $600. But another conference attendee rented a car for the San Diego conference for $250.
The time sheets covering the San Diego conference raise more questions. On Saturday, October 15, Hyatt put in for 14 hours of work. That's his normal day off, so that's 14 hours of overtime for that one day: $1,007.44 of pay.
But compare that to other conference attendees. Trooper Thurman Miller put in for eight hours; Maj. Michael Layne Barnum, four hours; Capt. Greg Graphia, seven. Again, Hyatt put in for 14 hours of work.
Conference records show workshops that day lasted from 8:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon: seven hours. And state policy only allows employees to be paid at conferences during program activities; social events are not considered work hours.
Still, for a conference that ended at 3:00 in the afternoon that Saturday, Trooper Hyatt went off the clock at 22:30, or 10:30 that night.
"I can only assure you that I'm reviewing that," Edmonson said. "And every hour of everything that was done that was not approved, they will have to pay back. They're going to have to answer for that."
As for who signed those time sheets, Edmonson said, "Their supervisor is going to have to answer to me why they signed off on that. And I'm going to personally review that."
He would not say whether anyone would be suspended for this behavior. "I'm going to get the facts," Edmonson said. "I like to get the facts before I discuss something."
At the conference, Col. Edmonson received a lifetime achievement award. A photo shows Edmonson and his group at a dinner celebration in San Diego.
At one time, another State Police employee was going to be nominated for the award, Maj. Carl Saizan. A letter of recommendation for Saizan details his dedication to law enforcement.
But Saizan's nomination was never submitted. Edmonson's was, and he took more than a dozen state employees on the trip.
"I did not know that someone else was even being considered," Edmonson told us. "My department nominated me and my peers elected me to receive that award."
Edmonson says the four employees who drove will repay all of the overtime and the money spent in Vegas. One of those men, Maj. Derrell Williams, headed State Police's internal affairs unit.
Less than two months after this trip, Edmonson told the state legislature that his department was in dire need of 658 additional vehicles.
"As you know, we went three years without making a purchase of a vehicle," he told the House Appropriations Committee on Dec. 6, 2016. "That's problematic because the maintenance costs of the vehicle [are] more than replacement costs. I lost 27 vehicles, fully-marked vehicles, in the flood."
Now that road trip to San Diego, by way of Las Vegas, is raising serious questions about the people who made the decision to drive a state-owned vehicle 4,000 miles, and thought that would save taxpayers money.
"We're not above the law," Edmonson insisted. "It sends a poor message to the public. As a leader of that organization, I'm not going to stand for it."
Monday afternoon, Edmonson released a statement updating the investigation, emphasizing that he learned "last week" that employees traveled through Las Vegas:
After learning last week of the fact that agency representatives traveling to a conference in San Diego claimed overtime and traveled through Las Vegas, I immediately began a review of the circumstances surrounding the trip. In response, I've directed the following steps be taken by the department:
I am not naive to the fact that the management of this department clearly rest on my shoulders. All employees of the Department of Public Safety, including myself, are responsible and accountable for their actions. The public can rest assured that I am making necessary changes and providing clear direction to those under my command. I believe that this incident does not overshadow the incredible work by the men and women of the Louisiana State Police who dedicate themselves to making our highways and communities safer each and every day.
But a discovery among the internal documents, obtained by FOX 8 and LouisianaVoice.com's Tom Aswell, show Edmonson may have known about the troopers' detour well before last week.
Among the documents is a credit card statement for Maj. Williams, with charges at Grand Canyon National Park and the Palazzo in Las Vegas.
The signature of the supervisor who approved it is unrecognizable. But another document for Williams includes what appears to be an identical signature. And the name printed below it is "Michael Edmonson".
While the superintendent claims he didn't know about the trip until last week, it appears he signed off on at least one expense report in late December - essentially approving one employee's side trip through the Grand Canyon and Vegas, paid for with your money.
We interviewed Col. Edmonson on Friday afternoon. We didn't discover the finding about his signature possibly being on one of the expense reports until late Monday. We have requested another interview.
FOX 8 cooperated with Tom Aswell on this investigation. You can read his story at LouisianaVoice.com.
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