Zurik: State senator’s sick time use is ‘criminal,’ law expert says

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Nearly two weeks ago, Louisiana State Senator Wesley Bishop promised an on-camera interview after FOX 8 emailed him documentation about using sick time from his job at Southern University of New Orleans to work at the Legislature.

He has yet to grant that interview.

“This is a story of a greedy state official who works for an organization that is either negligent or completely disinterested in holding certain of its employees accountable,” said Tulane law professor Joel Friedman.

FOX 8 received a statement from his public relations representative Todd Ragusa, but the statement raises serious questions.

“I think the red flags are all over here,” Certified Public Accountant Pat Lynch said.

The FOX 8 investigation looked into Bishop’s use of sick leave at SUNO to fulfill his legislative duties, which is against the law and SUNO policy. In two years, Bishop used 122 days of sick time at SUNO to attend the legislative session.

“We’ve made it very clear that what he has done is unlawful, it’s criminal,” Friedman said. “It’s against the regulations of his own university in terms of his use of sick leave. There’s just no doubt about that.”

To justify his use of sick time, Bishop points to an April 2016 memo from a SUNO human resources employee. The memo was sent to three lawmakers working for the school, including Bishop. It asks whether a state representative or senator can use annual leave to attend the session.

Annual leave is like vacation. It is different than sick leave. The memo cites a 1981 attorney general opinion, but the author says she will request a new opinion and keep the lawmakers informed of the progress.

The subject of the memo clearly uses the words "annual leave," or vacation. Nowhere does it mention sick leave.

“I mean, it’s grasping at straws. He has nothing. He knows that what he’s done is criminal, a violation of statute, a violation of Southern regulations. They are obliged to do something,” Friedman said.

Bishop, also a lawyer, calls this memo a “policy that permitted the use of earned accrued leave while serving in the Legislature.” He is using it to justify the use of sick leave.

“There is no policy statement here. Nobody could read this letter and believe that that’s what it says because it says exactly the opposite,” Friedman said.

In his statement, Bishop said, "For some six years, 2011-16, I took unpaid leave during the legislative sessions, which my time sheets will support.”

“Based on time sheets we looked at, his statement is totally false,” Lynch said.

According to Bishop’s statement, he took unpaid leave for the legislative session in 2015. But his time sheets show that is not true. Instead, he used annual leave or vacation that year.

Bishop also said as soon as this memo was written in April of 2016, it was only then that he changed his leave status and started using sick leave.

Lynch argued the time sheets refute what Bishop is saying.

For all of 2016, Bishop submitted for leave without pay and not sick leave as he alleges in the statement. Even after putting in for leave without pay, SUNO still paid Bishop for 31 of those days.

"The only way his statement can be true is if the time sheets they had given you are erroneous. And I don’t think that’s the case,” Lynch said.

A memo was sent to three lawmakers employed at SUNO, including Barbara Carpenter, a Baton Rouge representative. While Bishop is trying to use this memo to justify taking sick leave, Carpenter, who is not a lawyer, does not appear to interpret it that way.

When asked directly about using sick time to work at the Legislature, Carpenter said she did not know of any policy like that.

Bishop said this is a policy he followed at the direction of the Southern System and SUNO campus officials.

Bishop has a key position in the Legislature that could potentially help the university that employs him. Bishop sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which is responsible for the appropriation of state funds.

“I just cannot believe they do this for all their employees. Why for Mr. Bishop? It’s hard for me to imagine that the reason isn’t, not only is he a state senator, but he has a very important role to play in appropriations, of which Southern University is a recipient. And I believe that there is likely that. This is too egregious a mistake on Southern’s part,” Friedman said.

Friedman added that SUNO is either “completely incompetent” or there is “corruption going on here."

Southern University System President Ray Belton issued the following statement Thursday:

"The Southern University System office has worked diligently with the Southern University at New Orleans administration to address the use of leave issues involving Wesley Bishop, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

"On Monday, Nov. 12, my office began conducting a review of his use of sick, annual, and leave without pay in an effort to swiftly and accurately resolve this misunderstanding. Further, following the review, the University will update our policies and procedures accordingly.

“We believe that the SUNO administration and Associate Vice Chancellor Bishop were acting in good faith and compliance with the stated university policy when he took sick leave in lieu of annual leave. We can also confirm Associate Vice Chancellor Bishop followed university policy when he submitted leave without pay. We are investigating why the payroll regarding leave without pay was not properly processed within the system. Associate Vice Chancellor Bishop has agreed to reimburse any funds that may be owed to the university.”

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