NEW ORLEANS — Former La. State Police Commander Col. Mike Edmonson said he will fully respond Jan. 15 to a damning report by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor that accuses him of living a luxurious life on other people’s dime.
What began as a probe into a side trip four troopers took on the way to a conference in San Diego ended with auditor Darryl Purpera suggesting Edmonson broke ethics rules and possibly, the law.
The audit report details Edmonson’s dependence on handouts, from free housing at the LSP headquarters in Baton Rouge to free cable TV and internet, free housekeeping from a Louisiana state prisoner, free meals in the LSP cafeteria and taxpayer-funded hotel rooms doled out to friends and family that were meant to house troopers at Mardi Gras.
Edmonson submitted a short response wrought with anger that a draft report had been leaked to the media before he had a chance to fully respond, calling on the Legislative Auditor to investigate the source of the leak.
But the final report didn’t stray much from the draft and legal experts have said the findings could pose a big problem for Edmonson.
"Their reports will be provided to both state prosecutors and federal prosecutors for them to review to determine if there's any actual basis for any criminal charges,” said Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche.
The audit indicates Edmonson may have committed malfeasance and misuse of public funds.
As for the trip that started it all, auditors found the Department of Public Safety spent more than $85,000 in state money on the trip to multiple conferences in San Diego in October 2016, with $12,000 of that the result of not using the most cost-effective means of travel.
Those figures do not include Edmonson’s travel expenses. The report says he told auditors the International Association of Chiefs of Police paid for his trip, the host organization for one of the conferences that was giving Edmonson an award.
Four troopers traveled by road in a state-owned SUV, choosing a scenic detour on their way that included stops at the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam and in Las Vegas.
Auditors confirmed that some of the troopers who went on the San Diego trip billed the state for overtime that they did not work, a finding first reported by WWL-TV and the New Orleans Advocate.
In a 17-page response, one of those troopers, Rodney Hyatt, who was demoted over the trip, argued Edmonson told him to take his wife to the conference and “have a good time.”
He paid the state back for more than a thousand dollars in overtime after the stories first broke about the trip.
The only significant finding altered as a result of the responses received by the auditor was an allegation that a LSP training facility manager, former Office of Motor Vehicles Secretary Stephen Campbell, improperly lived at the Joint Emergency Services Training Center free-of-charge for almost a year.
Edmonson’s replacement, Col. Kevin Reeves, responded to the audit, saying steps were already being taken to ensure policies are in place to prevent troopers from taking advantage of the system.
Edmonson retired under a cloud in March after the stories about the side trip broke. At the time, he said he had been planning his retirement for a while, but an internal investigation completed within state police revealed Edmonson retired at the request of the governor after he was confronted with some of the allegations currently being leveled against him.
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s final report outlines Edmonson’s life of luxury, free-of-charge and it indicates he shared the wealth, especially when it came to hotel rooms during Mardi Gras.
“We send a letter to the colonel asking for a certain number of state troopers. We then work to negotiate how many troopers we need versus how many he could really supply,” Harrison said in an interview.
Most of those troopers come in from out of town and need a place to stay while in New Orleans. Placing them in downtown hotels makes it easier for them to work 12-hour shifts, with troopers closer to city’s center in case something goes wrong.
The Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association seeks out discounts from the city’s hoteliers to help house the troopers.
When the average reveler may spend hundreds of dollars a night to stay in the heart of Carnival, the NOPD would pay as little as $60.
“We figured out how many rooms were needed and then we figured out the funding for that and then the NOPD out of our budget provides the funding for that,” Harrison said.
Even with the discounts, NOPD records show the city spends more than $23,000 a year to house troopers during that 11-day stretch.
In 2017, the cost climbed to $38,905.
“We asked for more than we would usually ask for Mardi Gras because we had a week of NBA festivities right in the in the middle of Mardi Gras,” Harrison said.
Last year, the NBA All-Star Game brought even more people to the city and the undermanned NOPD police force was forced to lean more heavily on the state police.
While the NOPD may foot the bill, the state police assigns troopers and supervisors to the different hotels.
The report said the list of available hotels would be sent up the state police chain of command and after supervisors selected their rooms, the remaining rooms were assigned to the rank-and-file troopers.
In his response to the audit, Col. Reeves said he has changed how room assignments are made, that, “The detail commander will prioritize assignment of rooms to troopers without reference to rank or position and will return unused or unassigned rooms back to the participating hotels.”
That change comes as auditors found Edmonson regularly asked for extra rooms.
Edmonson, “Allowed his friends and family to stay in those extra hotel rooms free of charge,” the report reads.
Metropolitan Crime Commission President Rafael Goyeneche said he is not surprised to hear the allegations Edmonson misused hotel rooms.
“I’ve been hearing about it for years. Everything I’ve heard is a result of troopers and former troopers and people in the hotel/motel industry providing that information. So, it was a well-known secret,” Goyeneche said.
“The goal was to have more law enforcement in the city of New Orleans. If, in fact, this audit shows that these troopers were not housed in the city of New Orleans, they were housed outside because something else was going on, that could be very, very problematic,” said City Council member At-Large Jason Williams.
Auditors found multiple rooms in Edmonson's name from 2013 to 2016. One year, the report says two rooms at the swanky Windsor Court hotel in the Warehouse District were assigned to an unnamed state trooper.
That state trooper told auditors he did not stay at the Windsor Court that year.
And according to the audit, Edmonson's emails showed he checked into one of the unnamed trooper's rooms using his reward number.
In 2014, when the city’s need for security help was critical, the audit says a $310 bill with Mike Edmonson’s name on it for a 5-night stay from Feb. 28 to March 5 at the Roosevelt Hotel was paid by the city of New Orleans. Edmonson was also reimbursed by the LSP for some of those same nights at the Hotel Mazarin. That bill also has Edmonson's name and what appears to be his signature on it.
“If those rooms were being by friends of Col. Edmonson and they weren't troopers and they weren't doing state police work there, that could be a criminal problem for Col. Edmonson,” Goyeneche said.
Auditors said Edmonson told them he booked the rooms at the Hotel Mazarin to hold meetings there, but troopers told investigators all their meetings were held a few blocks away at the state police office in the Cabildo.
“I would imagine that there is going to be an investigation into that. The colonel and I always met. We were always in close contact about what he needed and what he could provide. So, I took them at their word that it would be used for the troopers for the purpose of Mardi Gras,” Harrison said.
It was an honor system, Harrison said, one that may have been dishonored for years at the highest levels of the state police.
“What is disturbing is that it took this long for the truth to be known and I think the reason for that is that people, while disgusted, were afraid to formally confirm for the record what their superior was doing because he was viewed as invincible and he was in a position of power,” Goyeneche said.
The Krewe of Endymion would also annually give Edmonson at least two tickets to the Captain’s table at the Extravaganza, worth nearly $300 a piece.
And troopers told the auditors they were frequently instructed to shuttle Edmonson’s wife and family around during Mardi Gras and to other events around the state, including trips from Baton Rouge to the New Orleans airport.
The Edmonsons lived free-of-charge at a state-owned house on the state police grounds in Baton Rouge, a fringe benefit the auditors estimate was worth $434,720, one the audit says the Edmonsons never paid state or federal income taxes on.
The report said the couple received free work on their children’s cars, free help cleaning their state-funded home in the form of a state prisoner, free meals in the state police cafeteria and more.
U.S. Senator John Kennedy, R-La. wrote a letter to the secretary of the La. Department of Revenue asking her to force Edmonson to pay state income taxes on the fringe benefits.
Shortly after the audit was released, Gov. John Bel Edwards released a statement on its findings.
“I have welcomed this investigation from the beginning and instructed the Louisiana State Police to fully cooperate," the statement said. "The Legislative Auditor's report uncovered some troubling findings and serious problems with past abuses of power from its previous leader who left his post in March. I believe that public servants must always hold themselves to the highest ethical standards. That being said, our men and women of the State Police are honorable public servants who do a tremendous job protecting the citizens of Louisiana, often under very dangerous circumstances. Through the leadership of Col. Kevin Reeves, who took the helm of this department in March of this year, the department has already taken significant steps to restore public trust and accountability. Col. Reeves is one of the finest individuals I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and I am confident that he is already leading the State Police in a new, positive direction.”