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Edwards watches politicization of state police

If you thought the Louisiana State Police Commission would help to inspire confidence in the integrity in some actions of members of the Louisiana State Police, think again. Meanwhile, Gov. John Bel Edwards stands by and lets it all happen.

In Louisiana, the State Civil Service Commission governs the affairs of classified employees – those hired and fired according to standard merit standards – except for state police (and cadets). The LSPC does that and essentially mirrors the SCSC in membership – six appointees by congressional district by the governor, from three choices provided by the presidents of state’s private colleges (each assigned to one district), and a current trooper elected by his peers.

Last week, the body drastically reduced punishments meted out to troopers who had violated policies during an official trip last fall. They billed taxpayers for thousands of dollars in improper overtime, which when that information emerged led to the departure of former Superintendent Mike Edmonson.

The troopers claimed the much more severe punishments decided upon by current Superintendent Kevin Reeves, such as loss of rank, were an overreaction to the foibles of Edmonson, who they said encouraged their behavior. Like the LPSC members, the governor appoints the state police leader.

Presumed permission to engage in corrupt behavior doesn’t ease culpability over something those involved should have known, if not from ethics training at least from common sense. That the LPSC bought that and ameliorated appropriate discipline that, as Reeves noted, significantly impacted perceptions of his agency’s honesty lowers the LPSC’s stature further subsequent to another flawed decision earlier this year.

In February, the LPSC considered a change to its rules governing activities of troopers. It would have disallowed membership in organizations that supported candidates for election, such as the Louisiana State Troopers Association. This stemmed from the LSTA’s top official acting as a conduit for improper donations made by former LPSC members, who the law bans from any contributions (prior to their appointments, current commissioners Jared Caruso-Riecke and Eulis Simien gave to Edwards).

Active-duty troopers also appeared to have used the LSTA's chief as a donation pipeline as well, with some of that money going into Edwards’ campaign account. Edwards gave back the presumably tainted dollars and hired one of his chief fundraisers to investigate that and the former commissioners’ donations, who issued a report about their activities but nothing about those ascribed to troopers.

The LPSC took up the change just days after its former director Cathy Derbonne sued it. She claimed retaliation over these issues by the former board, largely different from a year previous, against her that led to her firing.

Altering the rules actually doesn’t address such shenanigans in the future, because the group didn’t authorize the passing through (and officially it has donated only eight times) Yet officials with the interest group complained that this new rule would put the group out of existence, because apparently it would discourage trooper dues and without these it couldn’t do anything.

Such an admission blatantly suggests the groups functions as little more than a lobby, if not shadow union, for troopers. Why the group simply couldn’t cease its political activities and concentrate on its more philanthropic and fraternal tasks didn’t seem to come up.

Unanimously, the LPSC turned down the change. With the Edwards Administration showing no inclination to change matters, the pass-through scheme can continue to work, through the group or otherwise.

The governor does have some leverage here. If he meant adhering to the spirit of the laws, he could have told the two members he has a chance to reappoint (all current appointive members are his) before the end of his term he wouldn’t if they didn’t make the change, and the others if he won reelection. But it seems he’d rather not anger the LSTA, who endorsed him in 2015 after decades of staying out of gubernatorial races.

That attitude would explain why the LPSC not only rolled over on that, but also why it might go easy on the travelling troopers. Keep the rank-and-file happy who can express that consideration by giving to the LTSA which then sends that along to politicians who maintain rules that continue to give it influence. And even if the one who puts members on the LPSC publicly appears to reject money laundered through the LTSA’s top staffer, having the special interest as an ally to support his agenda can’t hurt.

Edwards nor his appointees won’t challenge a body that tolerates creeping politicization surrounding the state police. The Legislature may have to embarrass them into doing so by authoring legislation to do what the LPSC won’t.

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