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Archive for the ‘Budget’ Category

By Stephen Winham

Guest Columnist

The 2017-18 budget was enacted in a ball of confusion that allowed an escalation of the blame game.  There was less back-slapping than usual when the latest unnecessary special legislative session ended, but perhaps more back-stabbing.

I heard Gov. Edwards on the radio blaming the legislature for not using recommendations of the latest blue-ribbon committee (Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy) to formulate a plan for resolving the “fiscal cliff” facing us in 2018-19?  I was surprised nobody asked him, “Well, governor, why didn’t you?”

Surely the governor does not believe we have already forgotten that the centerpiece of his tax reform proposal was the previously unheard of and dead on arrival Commercial Activity Tax?  While his proposal did incorporate some of the task force proposals, his brand-new Commercial Activity Tax constituted $832 million of his $1.3 billion proposal.

When Gov. Edwards first talked about the Commercial Activity Tax I thought, “Oh, no, here we go again with another sham like the one Jindal put up in his his one and only stab at tax reform in 2013.”  Then, when Gov. Edwards put his CAT proposal in writing and balanced it with things that made sense, I thought he was proposing something he seriously thought would work.  By the time the CAT was introduced, however, it had already been severely watered down and it was subsequently amended beyond worth before the whole package was withdrawn – In other words, just like Jindal’s ersatz proposal, it never got out of the starting gate – And I came full circle to my original take on it.

Then Representatives Cameron Henry and Lance Harris began the drumbeat we have heard now for many years – “We don’t have a revenue problem.  We have a spending problem.”  That premise was picked up by legislators representing constituencies that believe it to be true (in the absence of a credible contrary argument), and the focus shifted to cuts.  Or did it?

Most of the things everybody considered critical, like full TOPS funding, higher education, and critical needs at corrections seem to have been funded, based on press reports.  State employees were even given a modest pay increase.  Yet no taxes were raised.  Since the Governor proposed an Executive Budget that left $440 million in what he considered priority needs unfunded, how is this possible?  I am still trying to find the answer to that seemingly simple question.

As you already know, state law requires the governor to submit an Executive Budget proposal balanced to the official forecast of revenues.  The legislature is also required to pass a balanced budget.  Although the original appropriations bills are based on the governor’s proposal, the legislature is under no obligation to pass a budget that matches what the governor has proposed.  In fact, there are states where the legislature pretty much ignores the governor’s proposal and starts and ends with its own ideas.  We must never forget that the legislature holds the power to appropriate and enact the budget, not the governor.  Our governor has veto power, including the power to veto line-items, but he does not make the law.  He is responsible for administering the enacted budget in accordance with law.

So, who really is to blame for the abysmal mess in which we find ourselves: the governor, or the legislature?  That’s an easy one – both.

Although the process has become significantly perverted, there should be only one way to balance our state budget on a continuing basis – match projected recurring revenue with projected expenses.  It is possible to do this and to do it in a way that is clearly understood.  At the end of the budget process we deserve a budget we can understand and live with – I am unconvinced we have either.

Governor Edwards did present a balanced budget proposal.  But was it clear and honest in its portrayal of our needs?  The Executive Budget presentation showed a general fund (tax-funded) need of $9.910 billion versus and official revenue forecast of $9.470 billion, leaving a gap of $440 million in unfunded needs.  All constitutional requirements were fully funded.  Here’s how the Governor said he balanced the budget:

  • Carrying forward most of the cuts made in FY 2016-2007 ($120 million)
  • Cutting general fund to the Department of Health ($184 million)
  • Across-the-board cuts in general fund of 2% ($48 million)
  • No funding for inflation
  • Funding TOPS at 70%
  • No funding of deferred maintenance and other infrastructure

If we got additional revenue, the governor proposed restoration of the cuts in hospitals and the across-the-board cuts.  In addition, he recommended full funding of TOPS, pay raises for state employees, technology enhancements, additional funding for prison contracts, match funding for DOTD, a 2.75% increase in the MFP for elementary and secondary schools, and other enhancements.

Fast forward to the budget ultimately enacted last week.  No additional revenue was raised.  TOPS is fully funded.  State employee pay raises are there.  Nobody is publicly claiming devastating cuts have occurred and the governor says he is happy with the budget.  We mullets (as the late C. B. Forgotston called us) are left to scratch our heads over how this is possible.  How is it possible to go from needing $440 million in additional money for a minimally adequate budget to needing ZERO while making most people happy?  What got cut?  How will the cuts affect people and businesses?  Until somebody answers these questions, we mullet mushrooms are left in the dark – and that is apparently where our “leaders” would as soon we stay.

We deserve better – all of us.  None of the following are unrealistic demands.  We need to start making them of our elected officials:

  1. An Executive Budget proposal that the governor truly believes in and is willing to fully defend. If, for example, 100% funding TOPS is not a high enough priority to be included in his base recommendations, then he should stand behind continuing the FY2016-2017 level of 70%.
  2. An Executive Budget proposal and an enacted budget that avoid across-the-board cuts. Across-the-board cuts only make sense if all programs are of equal value.  That is certainly not the case.  Further, after successive years of across-the-board cuts, the result can only be greater mediocrity and ineffectiveness.
  3. An Executive Budget proposal and enacted budget that make clear, concrete cuts anybody can understand with clear explanations of exactly how services are going to be reduced or eliminated.
  4. A progressive tax system that matches recurring revenue with recurring needs after all cuts possible have been made.
  5. Elected officials willing to hold their appointees to the highest standards possible with zero tolerance for the waste and abuses reported almost daily.
  6. Elected officials willing to put partisan politics aside in furtherance of the greater good.

Governor Bobby Jindal portrayed himself on the national stage as a budget-cutter par excellence.  If he was, why did he rely on tricks to “balance” annual budgets and leave Governor Edwards (and us) with a huge budget hole?

Why has Gov. Edwards not yet offered up a balanced budget he is willing to stand behind?  Why has the legislature not enacted a budget that makes sense and is sustainable in the future?  Is it a lack of courage, or is it an unwillingness to face reality?  It must be both, plus the partisanship that has recently made a political game of everything.

The governor and the legislature have competent staffs who have clearly defined our problems for many years.  A series of blue-ribbon panels and well-paid private contractors have studied the problem and recommended solutions for decades.  It is difficult to find evidence either individuals or businesses are overtaxed in Louisiana.  It is very easy to find low rankings of our state on infrastructure and quality of life issues important to both individuals and businesses.

We are mere pawns in the blame game – but we don’t have to be.   Let’s let our elected officials know we will no longer accept being held hostage to an incompetent and unresponsive government.  We want solutions, not the cop-outs and excuses we have been getting for way too many years.

Stephen Winham spent 21 years in the Louisiana State Budget Office, the last 12 as Director. He lives in St. Francisville.

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Iberia Parish Sheriff Louis Ackal’s travails (largely of his own making) continue with the filing of yet another in a series of legal actions, this one a federal LAWSUIT filed by a former female deputy.

As is usually the case, no matter how the trial (or settlement, which is more likely) eventually turns out, the real winners will be the attorneys who will have managed to drag out legal proceedings for a minimum of 18 months, barring any further delays in the trial tentatively set for June 4, 2018.

If the case follows the all-too-common trend, however, there is almost certain to be unforeseen delays and continuances that will push that date back even further as attorneys (and there is a gaggle of those) continue to rack up billable hours.

Candace Rayburn, a deputy sheriff for more than five years, claims she was unceremoniously and summarily terminated after she spoke up in the defense of a female co-worker filed an EEOC sexual harassment charge against a male deputy.

Rayburn’s is another in a string of lawsuits filed against Ackal, who was recently acquitted in Shreveport federal court of criminal charges of abusing black prisoners of his jail. Those charges included beatings of prisoners and turning a police dog on a helpless prisoner, a gruesome scene that was captured on video and posted by LouisianaVoice earlier.

Ackal is also being sued for wrongful termination by another former deputy and by the family of a prisoner who died of a gunshot wound while handcuffed and in the custody of Iberia Parish Sheriff’s deputies. The official coroner’s ruling was that the prisoner, Victor White, died of a self-inflicted wound.

The sheriff is also indirectly involved in the manslaughter arrest of a man instrumental in starting a recall of Ackal over the White shooting. https://louisianavoice.com/2017/03/21/man-indicted-for-manslaughter-after-he-is-rear-ended-by-man-later-killed-in-separate-accident-his-sin-was-recall-of-sheriff/

Rayburn initially named both Ackal and the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office as defendants but recently amended her petition to include Ackal as the only defendant.

Ackal, who paid premium fees in his criminal defense, in a classic case of fiscal overkill, has opened up the parish bank in hiring not one, not two, not three, not four, but five defense attorneys, all from the same law firm.

That’s right. Because he’s being sued in his official capacity as sheriff, Iberia Parish taxpayers will pick up the tab for his legal bills—all of them.

Rayburn, who was employed as a Sheriff’s Deputy for IPSO from July 21, 2008 to November

15, 2013, says she received “overwhelmingly positive reviews from her Supervisors” and was even named “Employee of the Year” in 2012.

But when Deputy Laura Segura filed a sexual harassment complaint against Chief Deputy Bert Berry, she voiced her support of Segura. Within two weeks, she says, she was brought before the department’s disciplinary board which recommended a one-year probationary period and that she be offered remedial training. Instead, she claims in her suit, Ackal fired her for “multiple (uncited) policy violations,” actions she claims were committed “with malice.”

Rayburn is claiming loss of pay, loss of benefits, loss of earning capacity, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life.

She is seeking reinstatement, as well as compensatory and punitive damages.

To say Ackal has lawyered up would be an understatement. He has retained half the Lafayette law firm of Borne, Wilkes & Rabalais: Allison McDade Ackal, Homer Edward Barousse, III, Kyle Nicholas Choate, Joy C Rabalais, and Taylor Reppond Stover.

Rayburn is represented by Justin Roy Mueller, also of Lafayette.

The calendar, rules, and SCHEDULE set forth by the court are simply mind-boggling and serve to illustrate why our courts are so backed up—and why justice is only for those who can afford it.

The court, invoking something called Rule 30(a)(2)(A), placed a limit of 10 on the number of depositions that may be taken in the case, limiting each to one seven-hour day—absent written stipulation of parties to the suit or of a court order.

Should the parties participate in the maximum 10 depositions with each one running the full seven hours allowed, that’s 70 hours of legal fees for which the parish must stand good.

Applying an arbitrary rate of $200 per hour (which most likely is considerably less than the hourly rate the parish paid his attorney in his criminal trial), that comes to $14,000—and that doesn’t count the costs of court reporters, expert fees, filing fees and countless other hours the five attorneys will be billing the parish for, or the Segura settlement which reportedly cost the parish in the ballpark of $400,000.

All in all, with all the legal expenses incurred by Ackal and his deputies in all the lawsuits and criminal charges, the folks in Iberia Parish must be asking themselves about now if they can really afford to keep such a financial liability in office.

Some might even call him high maintenance.

Others might call him a genuine physical threat.

By anyone’s definition, though, he is a loose cannon.

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By Steve Winham, guest columnist

I have a regular monthly breakfast with venerable politician and retired state fire marshal, V. J. Bella.  As a legislator, V. J.  never shied away from taking bold actions (think cabbages inside motorcycle helmets hit with baseball bats) and his background and devotion to the cause made him uniquely qualified as fire marshal.  He is also a good friend.

Among other topics, we always have lengthy discussions about Gov. Edwards.  At our most recent breakfast last week, V. J. said he believes Gov. Edwards is running for re-election too early.  He may have a strong point and, based on recent press reports, the game is already afoot to discredit him every way possible by at least one Republican PAC (America Rising). It has already launched a website to gather negatives about Edwards.  The plan, of course, is to stress his failures, including those dealing with our budget, economy, infrastructure, education, etc.

If the governor attempts to please as many people as possible over the remainder of this term in hope of being re-elected, how can he possibly recommend the very difficult and unpopular solutions necessary to begin to move us up from dead last among the states by most measures.  In an ideal world, making those hard choices would endear him to the public and ensure his re-election.  Unfortunately, the real world is not the political world.

If, in my dreams, I was Gov. Edwards, I would announce today that I am not running for re-election as governor, nor running for anything else.  I would then make dramatic changes unilaterally and push a legislative agenda that would move our state forward without a care for my personal political future.

As a bonus, taking bold, but politically unpopular actions would allow legislators to blame everything their constituents didn’t like on me.  That worked well for legislators even in the good times, so it could work even better now  –  “I put that rodeo arena in the capital outlay bill, but the governor vetoed it.  Vote for me and I’ll get it in there when we get rid of him next election.”

There is no question our budget is seriously broken.  Nor is there any question that is our major problem.  Our infrastructure is crumbling.  Our educational system continues to decline – Both strongly contribute to our stagnant economy and enhance a basic distrust of our government.  Businesses cannot reasonably plan because they have no idea how they will be taxed over time.  People dependent on state services have no assurances for the future.

All state services not completely protected continue a steady march toward total breakdown.  At the same time, we see almost daily news reports of waste, fraud, and corruption within government.  The public has lost faith in the ability of government to do anything right.

The first thing I would do is call my cabinet together and tell them I am tired of seeing news reports about things they should have been paying enough attention to catch and fix.  It’s not that hard to get a handle on these things.  It is a simple matter of working down the chain of command and holding people accountable at every level.   More on this later.

I would use the excellent January 2017 report of the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy and other information to put together a firm proposal of both expenditure cuts and revenue measures to permanently fix the gap of $1.2 billion that will result from expiration of sales taxes in July 2018.  Further cuts are unlikely to be popular, but they will be much more popular than additional taxes.

Since people are fed up with government, and because I believe it is needed now more than ever, I would do something I recommended in 1990.  I would take existing staff from the budget and accounting sections of the Division of Administration to create a small entity called the Office of Effectiveness and Efficiency.  I would send this team to every department, beginning with the most troublesome one and working down. They would take a common-sense look at how things are being done and recommend changes to make them better.  I would expect full cooperation from my cabinet secretaries.

Restoring the public’s faith in government is a daunting task, but it should be of highest priority.  Until people begin to have this faith, they will never believe anybody in government cares about waste or providing the best services possible and they will certainly not enthusiastically support sacrifices to support such a system.  It is simply not possible to begin to restore faith in government if political commitments override all other concerns.

We desperately need stability to achieve anything in this state.  Pandering to popular beliefs not supported by facts to win elections clearly does not work for the greater good.  An objective look at what has happened since our most recent presidential election should tell you that.

So, I would challenge Gov. Edwards to take the bold step of not seeking re-election and to announce it immediately so he can be free to fight the battles necessary to set us straight.  If he did, he might just find people begging him to change his mind and run again after all – And, if that happened, it would put a whole new, and ironic, spin on V. J.’s view.

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 By Stephen Winham, Guest Columnist

“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses”

Juvenal [circa 100 AD], Satire 10.77–81

“Bread and circuses” (or bread and games; from Latin: panem et circenses) is metonymic for a superficial means of appeasement. In the case of politics, the phrase is used to describe the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace, as an offered “palliative“… The phrase also implies the erosion or ignorance of civic duty amongst the concerns of the commoner.

—Wikipedia

 

Have these words of a Roman poet, written 1900 years ago, ever been more relevant to our country and state?  And, this is hardly satire.  In Louisiana’s government, we still get the circuses (the just-ended special legislative session, for example), but they are not nearly so much fun as they were in the past. They also no longer provide the level of distraction our elected officials expect.  Our leaders still provide the bread, too, though too many are left with the heels – and we are not always sure even they are distributed equitably.

Just as our country is clearly divided, our state is becoming increasingly partisan. Confronted with precisely the same problems, the two sides view them as if they exist in alternate realities.  The factions do not seek to find common ground.  They might compromise, but that is hardly the same thing.

In the most recent session of the legislature a purported compromise on how to best patch the state’s budget for the remainder of this year resulted from an agreement by the administration to accept the effect of a very questionable House Concurrent Resolution that will, if we believe the proponents, be a great “reform” and will magically free up almost a hundred million dollars in state general fund for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2017 – money, mind you, that was always there for the taking, just never captured.  Sound just a little suspicious?

How does this magic work and how does it differ from past gimmicks, you might well ask?  Well, unlike some of those, it really does free up general fund, but it also cuts other constitutional and statutorily dedicated funding, notably including the Transportation Trust Fund.  The Transportation Trust Fund has already been criticized for not being used more on roads and bridges desperately in need of repair – and now we are going to take another $15-$18 million of it to pay part of our General Obligation (not highway) Debt service?  And, lest we forget, TTF funds match Federal Highway funds so the potential impact is greater than the amount diverted. Is this your concept of “reform?”  It certainly is not mine.

The Bond Security and Redemption Fund ensures our general obligation debt service will always get paid first. It is the subject of HCR1 of the special session.  Money constantly (and somewhat theoretically) flows through it on the way to the general fund from which we have typically paid general debt service. I consider the fund a practical fiction because it would only have actual effect if somebody ever pressed the “stop” button and froze it to draw the necessary amount for debt service. However, its existence enhances our bond ratings. There is a legitimate concern that messing with it in any way can jeopardize our ratings, not because it places the payment of debt service in danger, but simply because we have started messing with it at all. The fact we have recently had to borrow short-term to meet current obligations is further evidence we should leave the BSRF alone. To the extent confidence in our fiscal status is eroded, and our ratings decline, we must pay more to service our debt.

House Speaker Barras, the author of the concurrent resolution that directs this miracle reform is a banker.  He certainly knows all these things.  Let’s put the best face possible on the resolution and assume he wanted its passage to ensure the special session did not close with absolutely no action toward addressing our long-range problems – which would have been the case in its absence.  This proposal had been made before and rejected by the administration for the reasons above and others – reasons I consider valid.

Could using the resolution as a bargaining chip have been a power play more than anything else?  Barras was not JBE’s pick for Speaker of the House.  The Republicans in the house are flexing their muscles in a faint attempt to emulate the partisanship of their national counterparts. Did they rally around the speaker to get in JBE’s face with this one?  Could this distraction have also been the center ring performance in this special session – a small act in a small session with bigger acts like those in past sessions to come when the Greatest Show on Earth returns to Baton Rouge in April?

Let’s face it.  Nobody has done anything that comes close to solving our overall budget problem.  Our roads and other infrastructure are crumbling, our state services are becoming increasingly mediocre and, in the case of some life-and-death situations, dangerously ineffective.  Worse, most everybody seems to be ignoring the fact that we face a $1.2 billion (gee, why does that number sound so familiar?) gap in Fiscal Year 2018-2019 when the temporary sales taxes used to bandage the budget the last time we hit the wall expire.

The latest of literally dozens of past blue ribbon groups tasked with providing options for fixing the state’s fiscal problems, the Task Force on Structural Changes in Budget and Tax Policy, issued its final report, to little fanfare, on January 27, 2017.  Some of the best minds in our state participated in this study and it provides solid recommendations based on current information.  Our leaders need only choose among them.  I commend its reading to you.  Why has this report not become part of the circus yet – Is it too dull to have entertainment value?  Do our leaders believe we cannot be convinced by (or even understand) facts?  Do they believe illusion, misdirection and confusion are always better and that we are easily fooled?

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne was a key participant in the task force.  When the Fiscal Year 2017-2018 executive budget was presented, the governor and Commissioner Dardenne declined to say what they might ultimately suggest as the solution to our problem.  They also said, as they have in the past, this is not the budget they want to see implemented.  Well, if it isn’t, what is?

If the cuts presented in the governor’s proposed budget, most notably to TOPS, are not realistic – not something we can all live with – what cuts are?  We don’t know because, despite protestations to the contrary, we have not seen a truly honest budget in many years – one that says, “Okay, Louisiana, you don’t want to pay more taxes, here are the things we are going to permanently cut and we are going to stand behind them to the end.”  This is very different from: “Well, shucks, here’s some things that will balance the budget, but we don’t want to do them and neither do you, so what have you got to offer as an alternative?”

Representative John Schroder has taken the position the governor should present a realistic plan he is willing to stand behind to provide the legislature with a realistic starting point.  The governor seems to be saying no such plan exists.  So, if the governor doesn’t have a plan and neither does the legislature, where does that leave us?

Our governor has greater control over the budget than is the case in some other states.  Representative Schroder has a point, but the simple fact is the legislature, not the governor, holds the power of appropriation and many, including me, consider it to be its greatest power. The governor can recommend things all day long, but he cannot enact appropriations or taxes.

Speaking of taxes, why are so many of our citizens convinced they already pay too much in taxes for what they get from the government?  Look no further than LouisianaVoice, The ADVOCATE, nola.com, almost any television or radio station and what do you read, see, and hear?

Every day we are bombarded with tales of waste, corruption, theft, etc. in our state departments.  Are you going to tell me nothing can be done about this?  Am I to believe lightening would strike JBE and our other elected officials dead if they dared expect the people they appoint to run these programs as effectively and efficiently as possible and to demand accountability for their failures?  I’m not talking about the simple act of firing those who are doing a poor job.  That doesn’t accomplish anything if the replacement continues the practices of the predecessor. I am talking about expecting officials to have integrity and to know enough about the operations of their departments to stop these things from happening in the first place.

I honestly and truly believe people are willing to pay for things from which they see benefits and that they believe are providing maximum value – the marketplace proves this.  Every effort must be made to instill confidence in our government’s ability to manage our resources in the best way possible.  Sure, its goals are different – government exists to provide services, not make a profit, but that is no excuse for not performing to the highest standards possible.

I don’t know about you, but I am finding the circus less than entertaining and I can provide my own bread for the most part.  Others have given up on the circus, but need help from its owners.  It is past time those owners accept their responsibilities – and it is up to us to lean on them to do so every chance we get – beginning right now and continuing in earnest during the next legislative session.  Our leaders need to all look at what is happening to the real Ringling Brothers Circus and realize it could happen to them – and, much worse, to us.

 

 

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It’s a classic political maneuver whenever a public figure is in trouble: get out in front of the story and release it yourself to make yourself either the good guy or a sympathetic figure—whichever the situation dictates.

Take Superintendent of State Police Mike Edmonson, for example.

First, he yanks a national award intended for a former Trooper of the Year and gets himself nominated instead, which by most standards, is a really shoddy way to treat a subordinate.

The he invites 15 of his best friends, also LSP subordinates, with him to San Diego to watch him bask in the moment—at the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) 123rd Annual Conference and Exposition held on October 15-18, 2016.

And he dispatches four of those to drive to California in an unmarked State Police SUV permanently assigned to his second in command, Charles Dupuy.

But when he realizes that LouisianaVoice, which has been working on this story for a couple of months now, and New Orleans TV investigative reporter Lee Zurik are planning to release a fairly critical story Monday night about his little escapade, he decides to beat them to the punch by going PUBLIC with his version of events.

But in doing so, this so-called “leader” callously tosses the four who drove the state vehicle under the bus while professing none too convincingly to be “embarrassed” by the whole affair. I mean, it’s a little difficult to be embarrassed when one of the four’s expenses for the trip was approved by Dupuy.

So much for the Loyalty part of that “Courtesy, Loyalty, Service” motto of the Louisiana State Police. If you’re going to give permission (as Edmonson did) for four men to drive to California and they take a state vehicle permanently assigned to your second in command, and that same second in command (Dupuy) signs off on the expenses of the senior member of the four (Williams), then it necessarily means that the top brass of Louisiana State Police (Edmonson, Dupuy, et al) were complicit and Edmonson can hardly discipline the four without coming down on Dupuy as well.

charles-dupuy

Sour grapes? You bet. No one likes being scooped on a story in which so much time and effort has been devoted. And this is not to be taken as criticism of The Advocate. In their shoes, I would not have done things any differently. And it’s certainly obvious that reporter Jim Mustian he did more than a little digging on his own as evidenced by his interview with a spokesman for the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans. We don’t begrudge participation of other media in a story such as this. Indeed, we welcome it. News is the exclusive domain of no one.

But it’s also just as evident that Edmonson had his PR machine cranked up full tilt in a desperate act of damage control.

He allowed those four State Troopers to make the trip in a State Police vehicle, a Ford Expedition—because, he said, it represented a savings to State Police. That was less than two months before he testified before members of the House Committee on Appropriations on December 6, 2016, that his department was in dire need of 658 additional VEHICLES (Scroll to the 7:40 point in the proceedings).

And he did it all on the state dime.

717,200 state dimes, to be precise, or as close as we can come, given the information provided by LSP was incomplete. That comes to at least $71,720 in taxpayer funds as the LSP assemblage partied even as the state barreled headlong toward yet another budgetary shortfall.

Gov. John Bel Edwards only last week issued a call for a 10-day SPECIAL SESSION of the legislature in an attempt to address a projected $304 million budget hole. That session began Monday at 6:30 p.m. and is scheduled to end by midnight, Feb. 22.

It’s not as though Edmonson needed validation badly enough to yank the honor from one of his subordinates. He has, after all, won other major awards:

  • FBI Washington DC, Top 25 Police Administrators Award, 2009
  • Sheriff Buford Pusser National Law Enforcement Officer of the Year Award, 2013
  • Human Trafficking, Faces of Hope Award, 2013
  • Inner City Entrepreneur (ICE) Institute—Top Cop Award, 2013
  • American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators Martha Irwin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Highway Safety, 2014
  • New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, Captain Katz Lifetime Award for Outstanding Achievement in Public Safety, 2015.

Edmonson’s expenses were paid by IACP as the organization’s “honored guest,” according to LSP Maj. Doug Cain, and the travel and lodging expenses of Lafargue, who submitted expense claims only for $366 in meals (though he did turn in a time sheet so he could be paid for attending the event), were apparently picked up by the Louisiana State Troopers Association (LSTA) as best we can determine.

Cain said the reason so many personnel made the trip was because there were two other national conferences being held simultaneously: the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies (ASCIA), and the National Safety Council Annual Conference. Edmonson said the conference is an annual event and was included in the LSP budget.

But that didn’t prevent everyone involved from taking time to party hardy. This happy hour group photo was snapped at a San Diego watering hole.

san-diego-happy-hour

That’s Mike Edmonson right up front, on the left. Third from left is his wife and standing behind him on the third row in the yellow shirt is his brother, State Police Maj. Paul Edmonson. When LouisianaVoice requested a list of those who traveled to San Diego, Paul Edmonson’s name was conveniently omitted from the list. Yet, here he is.

The entire affair more closely resembled a frat party than a professional function, given the side trip to Vegas and the barroom fellowship.

Here is the announcement of Edmonson’s award from the Louisiana State Police Facebook page:

Following a nomination process that included numerous highway and public safety leaders from across the country, Louisiana State Police Superintendent Colonel Mike Edmonson was awarded the “J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety.” Colonel Edmonson was honored with the prestigious award during the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Annual Conference which was held from October 15-18, 2016 in San Diego, CA. The IACP Annual Conference has a reputation for providing quality education on pressing law enforcement topics, and at this year’s conference Colonel Edmonson served on a panel of law enforcement leaders from across the nation to discuss topics such as community and training.

At each year’s IACP Annual Conference, the J. Stannard Baker award is presented to recognize law enforcement officers and others who have made outstanding lifetime contributions to highway safety. The award is sponsored by the IACP, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety. For an individual to receive this award, they must be nominated by a law enforcement agency or other traffic safety group or official. They must also be a full time law enforcement officer of a state, county, metropolitan, or municipal agency or be an individual who has made a significant lifetime contribution to highway safety.

The IACP is a professional association for law enforcement worldwide. The IACP actively supports law enforcement through advocacy, outreach, and education. By establishing partnerships across the public safety spectrum, the IACP provides members with resources and support in all aspects of law enforcement policy and operations. The organization helps members to perform their jobs safely and effectively, while also educating the public on the role of law enforcement to help build sustainable community relations.

The glowing news release, however, does not tell the complete story.

Sources close to the story have told LouisianaVoice that New Orleans State Police Maj. Carl Saizan, a 33-year State Police veteran and former Louisiana State Trooper of the Year, was originally nominated for the award but that the nomination had to pass through Edmonson for his stamp of approval. Instead, Saizan’s nomination was mysteriously scratched in favor of….Edmonson. Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) Secretary Dr. Shawn Wilson ultimately signed off on Edmonson’s nomination.

Repeated efforts to contact Saizan for a comment were unsuccessful but LouisianaVoice was told he was not a happy camper about Edmonson’s snub. In fact, he may well have voiced his displeasure to Edmonson because he has since been removed as Region One Patrol Commander over Troop A (Baton Rouge), Troop B (New Orleans) and Troop L (Mandeville) and placed over only Troop N, which is exclusively New Orleans.

Edmonson, for his part, denied any knowledge of Saizan’s nomination. “I don’t know anything about anyone else being nominated,” he said in a telephone interview on February 13. “This was a lifetime achievement award based on my 37 years with State Police, mainly my last nine years as Superintendent,” he said.

Maj. Doug Cain, LSP Public Information Officer, told LouisianaVoice that he submitted Edmonson’s name for nomination for the award in “early May” of 2016 but a chain of emails received by LouisianaVoice indicates that saizan’s nomination was in the works as early as April 7. That timeline coincides with the story we received that upon receiving communication that Saizan was being nominated, Edmonson, or someone on his behalf—and certainly with his blessing—decided that he and not Saizan should be the nominee.

Here is Cain’s email:

From: Doug Cain
Sent: Saturday, February 18, 2017 9:28 PM
To: Tom Aswell
Subject: Re: QUESTION

I submitted app early May.  Don’t know exact date off the top of my head.

For those who may not recall, remember in June of 2014, State Sen. Neil Riser (R-Columbia) tried to sneak an amendment onto a bill literally during the closing minutes of the regular legislative session that would have pumped up Edmonson’s retirement benefits by about $55,000 per year. In case you don’t remember, Edmonson feigned ignorance of that maneuver as well, saying he had no knowledge of any such attempt only to later admit differently that he gave the go-ahead to the attempt in the full knowledge he had chosen to lock in his retirement years earlier and that that decision was supposed to be “irrevocable.”

So someone acts on Edmonson’s behalf to benefit him and he then attempts to distance himself from the action by claiming ignorance.

Does anyone see a pattern here?

LouisianaVoice received corroboration of the Saizan story from six independent sources, all from law enforcement veterans—three active and three of whom are retired.

The 15 “guests,” along with their salaries, who traveled to California to witness the presentation at the three-day International Association of Chiefs of Police convention in San Diego on October 16-18 were:

  • Derrell Williams, of Internal Affairs, $132,800 per year;
  • Col. Jason Starnes, recently promoted into the newly-created $150,750 per year unclassified position of Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) to assist the Undersecretary in the administration of all programs and sections within the Office of Management and Finance. The job description states Chief Administrative Officer shall exercise the duties and responsibilities of the Office of Management and Finance in the absence of the Undersecretary at the direction of the Deputy Secretary. Perk – he receives Free housing at the State Police Headquarters compound (dorm) because he is separated;
  • Special Assistant Superintendent Charles Dupuy, Edmonson’s $161,300 per year alter-ego;
  • Paul Edmonson, Command Inspector of Special Investigations Section ($136,800). He is Mike Edmonson’s brother and was not included in the list provided by LSP of those making the trip but somehow showed up in a group photo of the contingent in a San Diego bar;
  • John W. Alario, son of Senate President John A. Alario, Jr., who pulls down $115,000 per year as Executive Director of the Louisiana Liquefied Petroleum Gas Commission;
  • Layne Barnum, Command Inspector, Criminal Investigations Division ($132,800);
  • Greg Graphia, Operational Development Section consists of the Planning, Public Affairs, and Research Units. The Section functions as staff for Mike Edmonson ($124,100);
  • Special Deputy Superintendent over Bureau of Investigations Murphy Paul ($150,750). The Bureau of Investigation is responsible for the investigation of criminal activity, intelligence gathering, and case and technical support in the State of Louisiana.
  • Chavez Cammon, Criminal Investigations Unit, New Orleans ($96,900);
  • Stephen Lafargue, Secretary-Treasurer of the Louisiana State Troopers’ Association (LSTA) and Bureau of Investigations for Troop D in Lake Charles ($112,300);
  • Rodney Hyatt, HQ President of the Louisiana State Troopers’ Association (LSTA) and Lt. of Operational Development Section ($99,800);
  • Master Trooper Thurman Miller, President of the Central States Troopers Coalition of Louisiana ($72,600);
  • Trooper Alexandr Nezgodinsky, Insurance Fraud Section, Baton Rouge ($50,900);
  • Charles McNeal, Investigative Support Section (ISS) LA-SAFE Director ($124,100);
  • Brandon Blackburn, an $18,700-per-year unclassified student/intern who is the son of the late Frank Blackburn who served as legal counsel to the Department of Public Safety (DPS). The younger Blackburn, along with his mother, Cindy Kreider Blackburn, and Mike Edmonson’s wife, Suzanne, paid their own expenses, records show.

With Edmonson, Dupuy and Starnes all in San Diego, it’s a good thing no major emergencies like floods, shootings or petro-chemical plant explosions occurred during their absence. But it nevertheless raises questions as to the wisdom of having the top three LSP administrators out of state at the same time. Cain, however, defended the decision, saying, Command and control is maintained 24/7.”

Yeah, like Bobby Jindal continued to run the state while campaigning for President in Iowa.

The decision to have LSP pay the salaries of such a large group of attendees, as well as travel, lodging, meal and conference registration expenses via state LaCarte credit cards, seems questionable enough. But the justification of having four troopers—Derrell Williams, Rodney Hyatt, Thurman Miller and Alexandr Nezgodinsky—drive a state vehicle from Baton Rouge to San Diego (with an overnight stopover in an expensive Las Vegas casino hotel)—was the most puzzling.

Miller is a member of the Retirement Board and President of the Central States Troopers Coalition of Louisiana, Inc. 

Traveling via Interstates 10 and 8 from Baton Rouge, the four would have had to go northwest from Phoenix about 250 miles for an overnight stay in Vegas and from there, 260 miles southwest to San Diego. The straight-line distance between Phoenix and San Diego via I-8, on the other hand, is 350 miles. That means the 510-mile detour taken by the four was about 160 miles longer than necessary.

The four logged seven days for the round trip—four days driving to California and three days on the return trip—plus the four days at the conference itself.

Not only did fuel for the trip cost $610.98, but the four troopers combined to log 249 total hours during the trip (12 hours per day each for three of the men except for the final day, when 11 hours were claimed by the same three) on their time sheets. Each man was paid for 56 regular hours (224 hours total) for the seven days on the road and for 27 hours each (81 total hours) in overtime pay for the trip. Each also was paid for attending the four-day conference, according to time sheets submitted by the troopers.

Maj. Derrell Williams was the only one of the four to claim no overtime for the 11 days that included the trip and the conference. That’s because those with the rank of captain or above cannot earn overtime pay. They can, however, earn straight compensatory time. His salary and expenses still came to $5,730.

Cain was asked for the justification for taking the vehicle and his email response was: More cost effective to transport 4 individuals and also provide local transportation in San Diego for departmental personnel.”

Edmonson likewise said by the time the cost of flying to San Diego and renting a car was tabulated, it was more economical to have the men drive.

But when their travel time (regular and overtime hours), meals and hotel bills were totaled, the cost of driving the vehicle came to more than $21,000, which does not appear to fit the “cost effective” justification given by Cain or Edmonson. In fact, each of the four could have flown first class for less than that. Edmonson said he would re-calculate the cost of driving the vehicle to California.

On Friday, he heaved the four men under the bus when he announced that they would be required to repay overtime claimed as well as hotel expenses for their overnight stay in Las Vegas. He said Maj. Catherine Flinchum who formerly worked in Internal Affairs, the section Williams now heads up, would conduct an investigation of the trip by the four men.

Interestingly, Williams’s supervisor who signed off on his $2,297.42 expense report was Lt. Col. Charles Dupuy, to whom the vehicle they drove is permanently assigned. That leaves unanswered the question of whether Edmonson’s investigation would extend to his second in command for approving the use of his vehicle and for approving the expenditures.

The bottom line here is that Edmonson knew of and approved taking the vehicle to San Diego and knew of the Las Vegas trip. His signature may not be on the approval for the expenses, but his fingerprints are all over this entire sordid affair. He owns it and no amount of public contrition can change that.

As for others who made the trip by auto, Capt. Gregory Graphia, who also was in San Diego, signed off on time sheets (including the overtime logged) of both Rodney Hyatt and Thurman Miller while Hyatt signed off on Alexandr Nezgodinsky’s time sheet even though he is not Nezgodinsky’s supervisor. A tight little incestuous circle of responsibility, to be sure.

Nezgodinsky, by the way, presents an interesting question in his own right. It seems he has been a State Trooper only since May 2014. So how did a trooper with so little seniority rate a free trip to San Diego? The answer to that may lie in the fact that he was a San Diego city police officer as late as 2012. Perhaps the Louisiana crowd needed a tour guide to the tourist hot spots.

As far as Cain’s somewhat questionable explanation of “local transportation for departmental personnel” goes, Enterprise, which has a contract with the state for discounted rates, still rents cars in San Diego.

One law enforcement official offered a third possible reason for taking the vehicle. “Any way you can check to see if booze for their private parties was transported out there?” he asked.

Cain denied that the Expedition transported anything other than the four troopers.

The total breakdown of costs to the state was almost evenly split between salaries and expenses, records show. Altogether, the salaries for all attendees came to nearly $34,800 and expenses for travel, lodging, registration and meals were $36,233, plus whatever unreported expenses were incurred by Paul Edmonson, according to incomplete records provided by LSP as a result of LouisianaVoice’s public records requests.

Among those costs were hotel bills far exceeding the maximum allowed by state travel guidelines. While several hotel bills were submitted for as much as $299 per night, state guidelines set a maximum limit of $126 per night for several listed cities, including San Diego.

Likewise, the $68-per-day limit for meals ($13 for breakfast, $19 for lunch and $36 for dinner) was routinely exceeded, sometimes just for breakfast. Three examples included meal expense statements of $60 and $72 for breakfast, $68 and $102 for lunch and $96, $120 and $193 for dinner.

redacted-starnes-invoice

redacted-edmonson-invoice

nezgodinsky-original-expenses

nezgodinsky-amended-expenses

hotel-bill

hyatt-expenses

Note the redaction of costs on several of the documents provided by LSP and the overtime hours charged.

The trip could prove embarrassing for the governor who recently posted on his office’s web page his PLAN to “stabilize the FY17 budget deficit of $304 million.”

Included in that plan:

  • No money in the FY17 budget for inflation or merit pay for state employees (so many years now that we’ve actually lost count but a good guess would be seven or eight years—but State Troopers have fared a little better, getting two recent raises that gave some officers increases as much as 50 percent. Those raises, by the way, did not apply to officers of the Department of Public Safety.);
  • No funds for flood related expenses.

Proposed cuts to specific programs included:

  • Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement—$251,674. The costs of the San Diego trip represented 28.5 percent of the cuts to this one program.
  • Louisiana Emergency Response Network Board—$27,625 (the San Diego trip cost two-and-one-half times this amount).
  • Office of State Police, Operational Support Program—$7.38 million;
  • Office of State Fire Marshal, Fire Prevention Program—$900,503;
  • Office of Juvenile Justice—$4.46 million;

Granted, $71,720 doesn’t represent a lot in the overall scheme of things when talking about a $304 million total deficit. Certainly not in any defense of Edmonson, but what if this is not an anomaly? What if this kind of fiscal irresponsibility is typical throughout state government?

If you have wastes of $71,720 here and $71,720 there, and $71,720 somewhere else, to paraphrase the late U.S. Senator from Illinois, Everett Dirksen, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

And remember, that $71,720 doesn’t include airfare, lodging and meals for Paul Edmonson since LSP failed to include him on the list of individuals who traveled to San Diego. Moreover, LSP initially provided expense records that redacted purchase amounts charged to the state LaCarte cards but later, pursuant to LouisianaVoice’s follow-up request, provided copies that were not redacted. But there were still no itemized receipts provided that showed what those purchases were.

Asked for the total cost of the trip, Cain responded, “I don’t have this figure; you have all the relevant documents.”

Well, given the deletion of Paul Edmonson from the guest list, not quite all.

Given the timing of this, the incredible waste of state resources, and the fact that the state continues to grapple with budgetary shortfalls, perhaps the time has finally come for Gov. Edwards to take somebody to the woodshed for a lesson in discretion.

Because, Governor, we’re all “embarrassed” by Edmonson’s repeated lapses in judgment.

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