State Police chief loses enhanced benefits

The head of Louisiana State Police lost his enhanced retirement benefits Thursday when the panel charged with overseeing pensions refused to pay the extra money and a Baton Rouge judge issued a temporary order blocking the payment of the benefits.

The Louisiana State Police Retirement System decided not to contest any lawsuit aimed at overturning a last-minute law that enhanced the retirement of Col. Mike Edmonson by about $300,000 and one other trooper to the tune of about $60,000.

The board’s goal is for a court to officially find as unconstitutional the law that has been widely criticized as a deal cut behind closed doors to benefit a powerful state official.

Though Edmonson vowed repeatedly that he would not accept the additional monies when he retires in 2016, board members fear that payments could still be required in the future if the law is not officially eliminated.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, a Baton Rouge Republican, left the meeting and rushed downtown to file that lawsuit in the moments before the courts closed for the day.

At 5 p.m., Judge Janice Clark, of the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, signed Claitor’s request for a temporary restraining order until she holds a hearing set for Sept. 16.

The panel also heard testimony that it was Edmonson’s top aide who requested the last-minute change that became Act 859. It was the first time the source of the legislation that led to the new law was disclosed publicly.

Charles Hall, the actuary for the Louisiana State Police Retirement System, testified Thursday afternoon that he was phoned by Deputy Superintendent Charles Dupuy, Edmonson’s chief of staff, who asked for help on the Friday before the last day of the session.

Initially, Hall said his calculations were for a single beneficiary of the legal change Dupuy sought. Board member and state Treasurer John N. Kennedy identified that sole beneficiary as Edmonson. Several days later, Hall said he learned that another trooper, Louis Boquet, of Houma, also fell into the loophole created by the new law.

“This is all on me. I take full responsibility,” Edmonson said in an interview after the meeting. “My staff’s intentions were good. They meant well.”

Edmonson said the intention was to clean up language that would fix a hiccup in one of the retirement plans that occurred for some troopers who were still working. Once he realized what had happened and how the legislation was passed, Edmonson said he immediately refused to accept the pension enhancement and endorsed efforts to repeal the law.

State Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, has said he directed legislative staff to add the amendment but did not realize it would benefit only two people. The amended bill was quickly approved without debate on Monday, June 2, the last day of session, and signed into law by Gov. Bobby Jindal on June 23. The law went into effect on July 1.

“This bill didn’t just happen. Somebody pushed hard for this,” Kennedy said. “The safest thing to do is to get a lawsuit filed and declared unconstitutional.”

“It has caused a bad light on the State Police and it is unethical at best,” Robert Landry, a state trooper who retired in 2006, said in asking the board to reject the Edmonson enhancement.

Robert Klausner, a national pension system expert from Plantation, Florida, and Denise Akers, a Baton Rouge lawyer who represents the State Police Retirement System, said the law was unconstitutional because it was tacked on to legislation that had nothing to do with retirement benefits. That’s unconstitutional because, among other issues, proper notice was not given.

But Klausner said the board did not have legal standing to file a lawsuit in which a judge could rule the measure unconstitutional. His recommended strategy was to refuse to pay the benefits and hope someone filed a lawsuit. Because the Edmonson enhancement was part of state law, the superintendent could very well refuse to accept the money for himself but he could not refuse for his family and heirs or any other trooper found in the future to have similar circumstances.

Kennedy volunteered to file the lawsuit as a citizen and taxpayer, asking for a legal decision that would end the ability to enforce the law. “That seems to me that would solve the problem,” Kennedy said.

Klausner responded, “That would be the most elegant solution to your problem.”

Prior to leaving the meeting to race across town to the courthouse in rush hour traffic, Claitor told the board he was embarrassed at the way the law was approved by the Legislature.

“It didn’t occur in an open and transparent manner. That’s the Legislature’s fault,” said Claitor, who voted for the legislation that became Act 859.

“It’s a completely embarrassing omission on my part,” he said, adding that if he was aware of the last-minute changes to the legislation he would have voted against the bill.

State Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Larose, said he doesn’t read all the bills during the final hours before the Legislature adjourns. He was marked as an absent vote but probably would have voted for the legislation had he been in the chamber.

An unusually high number of the board members attended Thursday’s hearing, with the exception of Edmonson. He, instead, sent a letter saying he could not vote on the issue and did not want anyone to perceive his presence as interference. He requested the board to seek a legal determination to ensure that the benefits would not be paid to him or to anyone else in the future.

Former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards spoke on behalf of state employees, saying that too often they “are the whipping boys.”

He said the board was honorable and he supported it doing the right thing.

Edwards stopped to shake hands with Claitor, one of the Republicans opposing Edwards in the 6th Congressional District race.

The new law essentially allows Edmonson to receive lifelong pension payments based on the calculation of his higher colonel’s pay of $135,000 a year. That’s more than he would have received at captain’s pay, where it was frozen because of a 2006 decision he made to participate in the Deferred Retirement Option Program, called DROP.

Under the old rules, a trooper had to make a decision whether to enter DROP when he or she reached 25 years of service or 50 years of age. DROP allowed troopers to continue working even though they were eligible for retirement. The downside was that troopers didn’t get credit in their pension checks if they started receiving higher salaries after joining DROP.

Troopers did not have to enter DROP, but once they did, the decision was irrevocable.