CADDO PARISH, LA (KSLA) - Caddo Parish commissioners still are the top spenders in Northwest Louisiana when it comes to travel.
That distinction remains despite policy changes that have cut Caddo's travel spending to nearly half what it was in 2014.
In 2016, Caddo commissioners traveled thousands of miles to South Africa, California, Washington, D.C., San Antonio and elsewhere.
Taxpayers paid for their airfare, hotel, meals and conference registrations.
Eight out of the 12 commissioners racked up a $38,000 bill for the year.
Commissioner Jerald Bowman said they traveled in the name of bettering the parish.
"If we keep doing the same thing that we have been doing over and over, we'll always have the same result," he said. "I look at it as, and I'm sure some of my other colleagues, go out and get other ideas and do things in order to bring back."
Records that KSLA News 12 Investigates obtained through public records requests show Commissioners Doug Dominick, Mike Middleton, John Atkins and Jim Smith did not travel.
And while Dominick hasn't traveled on commission business since 2014, he said he's not against it. "Well, I think it is important, especially for new commissioners. And I do think it is necessary for the higher-up elected officials."
Atkins said he made a conscious decision not to travel. "I just prefer to not spend taxpayer dollars on community-related travel. If I have to travel for the commission, I'll travel on my own budget."
Middleton campaigned in 2015 on the stance that too much money is spent on commissioners' travel.
"I'm not just going to get elected and say, 'Well I didn't really mean it.' I'm going to keep my campaign word."
After spending nearly a half million dollars on travel since 2007, commissioners agreed in early 2016 to change the travel policy at the urging of Steven Jackson, who at the time was a newly elected commissioner.
"People may see it as, 'Hey, you are using your dollars as de facto vacations.' I want to make sure we are doing the right thing and perception isn't reality," Jackson said at the time of the initiative.
Commissioners voted to take the spending cap of $15,000 per member out of the old travel policy.
Instead of commissioners traveling wherever they want, the new travel policy limits where they can go, only allowing a few regional and national conferences. All other trips now have to be preapproved in a public meeting.
"I would commend the new commissioners that came in and actually moved forward, requesting these changes to be made," said Dominick.
KSLA News 12 Investigates tracked travel spending over a 3-year period to see whether the policy changes have made a difference.
The result: Spending has dropped by nearly half since 2014:
- In 2014, the commission spent about $75,000 on 38 trips made by 10 commissioners.
- In 2015, the commission spent $45,000 on 28 trips by 6 commissioners.
- In 2016, the commission spent $38,000 for 22 trips by 8 commissioners.
"It's a work in process, but we are moving in the right direction," said Atkins.
Some commissioners believe the downward trend is because more people are paying attention.
"I think it's been because of media coverage of that nature we've all decided we want to see how we can be able to bring down spending," said Bowman.
Commissioner Lynn Cawthorne agrees public scrutiny may have led to a decrease in travel spending. "I think commissioners have become more conscious of traveling and where they are traveling and who is going to say something and whether or not there will be backlash."
Cawthorne speaks from experience. He received scrutiny after asking for permission to travel to South Africa with the International Arts Foundation.
Cawthorne said was to explore economic development opportunities. He argued that since his trip was happening at the same time as a national conference that five other commissioners were going to in Long Beach, he might as well use the money in a different way.
"Because the opportunity presented itself, I made a conscious decision, 'Lynn, what do you think is a better bang for the buck? To go to the NACO conference with everyone else, or the South Africa trip?' I chose the South Africa trip."
The commission ended up voting to cut Cawthorne a $2,500 check in advance to pay for half the trip. He paid for the other half out of his own pocket.
KSLA News 12 asked Cawthorne if he felt like the taxpayer investment of the $2,500.00 will pay off.
"Absolutely, without a doubt in my mind. We are only talking about 25 hundred dollars."
The commissioner spent a week in late July, exploring Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.
"I fundamentally feel that if there is a need to do something that you feel convicted in your heart to travel and better this community, I would be supportive of any commissioner going ahead and do it," Cawthorne said.
When he got back from his trip, he gave a presentation to the commission, showing off the food and sights from his trip. He said he spoke at the Johannesburg tourism reception and spent time networking.
"Those will be the seeds that are planted so when we come back, stateside, we can connect the dots to make it come into fruition."
As for how the trip will benefit Caddo Parish, Cawthorn says he got the idea to try and attract an international arts festival, bring a South African play here, and develop a program or workshop for people wanting to do business in South Africa. KSLA News 12 asked Cawthorne what has been done between then and now to progress the objectives he identified.
"We have had two conference calls with SRAC, the multicultural arts center, and the international arts center in New Orleans as it relates to the play 'Umoja'," he replied.
"Umoja" is a South African play that already makes stops in New Orleans and Dallas, but Cawthorne believes the connections he made may make it possible for the play to come to Shreveport.
"I think it will be an economic impact to the local community."
While Cawthorne used travel fund money to travel the furthest distance from the parish, Commissioner Ken Epperson, who resigned in December of 2016, did the opposite. Epperson used public dollars to go the shortest distance, using travel fund money when he wasn't even out of town.
When the Louisiana Police Jury Association Conference came to Shreveport in March, all commissioners attended, but public records reveal Epperson was the only commissioner who asked for a travel advance of $700.00 for the conference held in downtown Shreveport.
According to commission records, Epperson spent three nights at the downtown Hilton hotel at $119 a night, twice cashed in his $51 per diem travel allowance for food, spent $13 a day for three days on valet parking and even charged taxpayers for $40 worth of tips.
KSLA News 12 made repeated attempts to interview Epperson on camera, but he did not return our calls. However, we were able to question him over the phone on December 1, 2016, just a few weeks before he resigned.
"How far of a drive is it from your house to the hotel?" KSLA News 12 asked Epperson. "I have no idea," was his reply.
But a quick map search reveals Epperson lives 13 and a half miles from the hotel. The hotel is only 1 mile from Government Plaza, where Epperson is required to report for meetings at least four times a month.
Epperson said he needed the convenience of the hotel room because he was on the executive committee of the association at the time.
"I wasn't going to be running back and forth with all my stuff. I don't think that's an issue," he said. "It was better suited where I could stay down there where I could have been there and could have a change of clothes, could have showered and have everything down there I need."
In total, he spent $536 of his $700 travel advance and had to pay the commission back $163.
The money Epperson used is specifically listed under the commission's travel policy. But how is it possible to use travel money when a commissioner is not traveling beyond his home city? According to Krystle Grindley, the spokesman for the Caddo Parish Commission, the policy allows for the specific events listed within the policy such as the Police Jury Association conference.
Government watchdog and activist Elliott Stonecipher was shocked when we told him about Epperson's use of travel money. "I've been at this for 40 years here, I've never heard of a public official who would dream of doing that, much less do it proudly and openly," he said.
"The fact that he did that, of course, is his way of telling, you, me, and 250 thousand people, in Caddo Parish, 'go to Hell' I don't care what you think. I don't care what you feel, I don't care what your attitude is, I took it because I can. It doesn't get much worse than that."
Overall, Epperson was the top spender in 2016 out of all commissioners. According to these documents, he took a total of 7 trips in 2016, which is consistent with year's past. But what he spent on those trips spiked to more than $12,000 compared to his usual spending of about $9,000 annually.
Epperson told us over the phone that he had to travel because he served on several national committees.
"My constituents have never had a problem with me and my travel because I am productive and I am objective," he said.
However, after racking up his highest travel bill in years, he unexpectedly quit his job as commissioner effective December 31, 2016. In early January, it was announced that Epperson had been named Director of Northwest Louisiana Veterans Cemetery.
When questioned spending about $30,000 on travel within the past three years alone, Epperson told KSLA News 12 on Dec. 1 that commission travel helped him get things done for the parish. He cited the NWLA Veterans Cemetery as an example.
"My travel has meaning. Do you know how the Northwest Louisiana Veterans Cemetery got out there? Because of my lobbying, being a part of the National Association of Counties."
"I went to Washington, D.C., to our national conference and I got a resolution passed on the floor that we lobbied Congress, because all of the veterans cemeteries were full, especially the ones in Louisiana. And that's how we got that veteran's cemetery out here."
Stonecipher has long scrutinized the commissioner's travel fund.
"It is abusive, it is self-pay."
Stonecipher believes travel is not allowed in the charter, which is the legal document that established the Caddo Parish commission in 1984.
Stonecipher says the charter's authors, drew a bright red line about any form of self-pay other than the commission salary.
"When you look at what is happening with this travel abuse, I think it is clearly abusive. It is 100% contrary to the people who wrote that charter," said Stonecipher, who has sued the commission over what he says is defying the state constitution by accepting retirement funds from the Caddo Parish Employment Retirement System (CPERS).
Interpretation of the parish commission charter aside, Commissioner Cawthorne says he knows what the government watchdog activists say about travel and he doesn't waste time arguing with people who have different opinions than him.
Fellow commissioner Doug Dominick agrees.
"I think it is allowed by Louisiana law and everybody is entitled to their opinion. If that is what they want to believe that is completely fine."
However Commissioner Middleton says he does believe taxpayers are watching and care how their money is being spent.
"We don't need to be spending taxpayer dollars, because one day we need to turn around...In fact coming up in April, we will be asking for a renewal on millages," he said. "I don't want anybody to have ammunition against us. I want us to be able to come out there and take care of our business and get it right. We need to be able to hold our head up high with whatever we are doing with taxpayer dollars."
The following are the amounts available from public records showing how much each of the parish governments in Northwest Louisiana spent on travel in 2016:
Caddo Parish Commission: $37,842
DeSoto Parish Police Jury: $26,057
Bossier Parish Police Jury: $11,379
Webster Parish Police Jury: $9,995
Bienville Parish Police Jury: $6,000
Sabine Parish Police Jury: $3,980
Claiborne Parish Police Jury: $2,683
Natchitoches Parish Police Jury: $2,356
Red River Parish Police Jury: $2,251
In the 2017 budget, the Caddo Parish Commission has $90,000 allotted for the education, travel and training fund. In 2016, the commissioners budgeted $110,000 for travel and used $45,624.
So far in 2017, $1,1800 has been spent out of the Education and Travel Fund by commissioners and the commission clerk, Todd Hopkins.
- Police Jury Association of Louisiana Convention in Lake Charles early registration ($275) for Commissioners Lyndon Johnson, Stormy Gage Watts, Jerald Bowman, and Commission Clerk Todd Hopkins = $1,100.
- Police Jury Association of Louisiana Convention in Lake Charles regular registration for Commissioner ($325) Mario Chavez and interim Commissioner Louis Johnson = $650
- Registration to Organization of Parish Administrative for Commission Clerk Todd Hopkins = $50.00