Zurik: State senator cuts check for use of sick time during legislative session

New questions emerge after timesheets show State Senator used educational leave for trip to Cuba
Updated: May. 22, 2019 at 10:00 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - A state senator has cut a check for discrepancies raised in a FOX 8 Investigation into his pay during a recent legislative session.

A state inspector general investigation was launched following our reports showing State Senator Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, taking sick pay from his job at Southern University at New Orleans while taking pay as a legislator during the session in Baton Rouge.

Our investigation found day after day during the legislative session, Bishop used sick time at SUNO while at legislative meetings at the state capitol.

“This is theft. Misappropriation of funds,” Tulane Law Professor Joel Friedman said. “Saying you need money because you’re home sick, then stay home. Don’t go out to other functions and do your job. That’s not what sick leave is.”

Following our series of stories, SUNO issued a statement on November 15 saying, “Bishop agreed to reimburse any funds that may be owed to the university.”

Five months later, on April 25, we asked Southern University if Bishop repaid the money and if so – how much. On May 8, Southern confirmed Bishop repaid $20,000. We asked Southern for a copy of the check and it was dated April 29th – four days after FOX 8’s Lee Zurik asked if a payment had been made.

“For five months nothing happens?” Friedman asks. “Coincidentally four days after you communicate, then he pays?”

State Senator Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, wrote a check to SUNO (Southern University at New...
State Senator Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, wrote a check to SUNO (Southern University at New Orleans) just days after Lee Zurik asked if a payment had been made on sick time used during the legislature.

Friedman, who has watched the case develop over time, said the University holds some of the blame for not holding Bishop accountable.

“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 confronted about the discrepancies back in November, Bishop said he would do an interview, but never scheduled the interview.

Last week, FOX 8’s Lee Zurik caught up with Sen. Bishop in Baton Rouge at the State Capitol.

Southern contacted me. They did an audit on a couple of different things,” Bishop said. “They did the audit to see exactly what was owed to the university.”

Southern University said the $20,000 includes $8,600 in improper payments in 2018, $5,400 in 2017 and $6,300 in 2016.

“I went in, got with my family and wrote a check out,” Bishop said.

When asked why it took so long to write the check to Southern, Bishop said, “It took me a while for Southern to tell me when the check was accurate.”

We asked Southern University for a copy of the audit spelling out why Bishop owed the school money. They did not respond to our public records request.

“I was told there was an audit done on the campus of SUNO, with the campus of Southern in Baton Rouge and that was then given to the inspector general,” Bishop said. “The inspector general looked at the audit from what I’m told, and it was actually cleared, and the case closed.”

Bishop said he was told that by the Southern University legal counsel on the Baton Rouge campus. However, the Louisiana Inspector General, Stephen Street, told FOX 8 the investigation into Bishop remains open.

When asked why he did not talk in November, Bishop told Lee Zurik, “Some of the information presented was not accurate.” Bishop did not give an example of what he alleged to be inaccurate but did say they had to do with Southern not properly coding some of his time off during the legislature.

“Once you brought it to everybody’s attention – we then checked with officials with the Southern System involved in it, we all looked at it to see what was going on and realized an error in fact had in fact been made,” Bishop said.

The state senator said he is taking blame, but not for knowingly making any errors.

“I am taking blame based on the fact that I was given information that ultimately turned out to be – not to be accurate and that was by several individuals amongst our system,” Bishop said.

Timesheets from this year show Bishop did not take sick leave during the legislative session. Instead, he took leave without pay.

In the first week of April 2019, we noticed the state senator in video from a delegation to Cuba led by New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Video shows Bishop, next to Mayor Cantrell, meeting with Cuban officials in Havana on April 4.

State Senator Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, claimed educational leave during a trip to Cuba. On...
State Senator Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, claimed educational leave during a trip to Cuba. On the trip's roster, he was listed as attending in his state senate capacity.(AP/Pool Photo)

According to documents obtained by FOX 8 from the Mayor’s Office, Bishop was attending the trip in his capacity as state senator, not as a part of Southern University.

While Bishop was in Cuba, Southern University timesheets show he claimed pay from the university as ‘educational leave.’

“Educational leave is exactly what it says it is,” Friedman said. “It is a nice benefit the university provides people to go and get continuing education to make them better at their jobs.”

The entire story leads Friedman to reach one conclusion about why Southern University delayed in asking for the money back and holding one of their own accountable.

“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.”

Southern University at New Orleans released the following statement in regards to Senator Bishop’s use of ‘educational leave’:

“Southern University at New Orleans Chancellor Lisa Mims-Devezin, along with other higher education institution leaders in New Orleans, was invited by Mayor LaToya Cantrelle to attend a trip to Cuba as part of educational initiatives. Chancellor Mims-Devezin and Vice Chancellor David Adeboyewere unable to participate due to a scheduling conflict.

In their stead, Associate Vice Chancellor Wesley T. Bishop participated as the representative of Southern University at New Orleans. The use of educational leave was appropriate for this trip. The use of the title “Senator” is a professional courtesy and not dispositive of his role on the trip.”

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