Zurik: State senator pocketing money while calling in sick

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Documented proof has been discovered that a Louisiana state senator may be breaking the law.

One local certified public accountant calls the use of public funds “infuriating.” Over a 122-day period, FOX 8 uncovered video and photos that apparently show the longtime lawmaker pocketing money he did not deserve.

Wesley Bishop serves New Orleans East in his part-time job as state senator. His salary, paid by taxpayers, is $32,000 a year. Bishop works full-time at Southern University of New Orleans, a taxpayer-funded college. He is a Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs, where he makes $85,000 a year. The jobs are separate, so when Bishop fulfills his legislative duties, he must take time off from his other job at SUNO.

“This is not an insignificant thing,” said Tulane law professor Joel Friedman.

The investigation found that for 79 days in 2018, Bishop called in sick at SUNO.

“It’s better than a third of the year [sick this year],” said Patrick Lynch, CPA. “That’s a problem, because Bishop was not sick. There is documented proof, all 79 days when he called in sick, he spent the day at the State Capitol in his part-time job as state senator.”

“This is theft, misappropriation of funds [by] saying you need money because you’re home sick. Then stay home. Don’t go out to other functions and to your job,” Friedman said.

Bishop’s SUNO time sheets clearly show day after day he marked sick leave, meaning SUNO paid him for being ill, even though he worked and earned his additional legislative salary. For example, Bishop used eight hours of sick leave on April 3, but he was in a judiciary meeting at the Capitol on the same day, records show. On April 23, Bishop posted a picture to Facebook from Baton Rouge, even though he called in sick to SUNO.

During another example on May 15, according to state Senate records, Bishop was present for the roll call at 9:50 a.m. He took part in 49 votes in the Senate chamber that day and was present during the roll call that night at adjournment.

Bishop was at the Capitol for more than 10 hours even though he marked May 15 as a sick day at SUNO. Looking at it another way, SUNO paid him money for being sick while Bishop spent the day working and earning an additional taxpayer-funded paycheck in Baton Rouge.

"Who’s working? Who’s looking? Who’s checking the accountability?” asked Friedman.

In fact, Bishop’s sick time included 11 straight work weeks. All of April and May, Bishop does not appear to work one day at SUNO. Lynch said if you are calling in sick, and you are not sick, it is fraud.

“You are making representation you are sick, and exercise rights under sick leave policy, but you’re not sick over in the Legislature,” he said.

SUNO policy and the state law that governs the university clearly spell out when an employee can take sick leave - It can only be used because of illness or injury that prevents performance of his usual duties, or medical, dental or optical consultation or treatment.

“When you are vice chancellor of a university, should you be held to a lower standard or same standard or higher because you’re a high executive of the university?” Friedman asked.

In 2017, Bishop did the same thing, using 43 days of sick time while attending the legislative session. Again, FOX 8 has documented proof that during each one of those 43 sick days, Bishop was in Baton Rouge.

“I mean, it’s being done by a state senator. How much worse can it get?” asked Friedman.

SUNO policy said the abuse of sick leave will result in disciplinary action. But Friedman points out it does not appear that any disciplinary action has been taken. When added up over two years, Bishop took 122 sick days for time he worked in Baton Rouge at the State Capitol. (SUNO is a public university, so this cost taxpayers nearly $40,000. Tulane law professor Joel Friedman said, essentially, SUNO paid Bishop thousands he did not earn.)

Friedman said Bishop should at least return the money to SUNO. On top of the sick time spent at the Legislature, in 2017 Bishop took a handful of trips for his legislative job, attending conferences. In August of the same year, Bishop filed this document with the State Ethics Board detailing a Boston trip.

He even certified that the conference was related to his public service as a state lawmaker. The purpose of the trip was the National Conference of State Legislatures Annual Summit. While on the road, Bishop missed his full-time job at SUNO, but the university still paid him because for the three days Bishop attended the legislative conference, he took educational leave from SUNO.

Lynch said he should not have been paid educational leave for the conferences.

All totaled, FOX 8 found four trips totaling 10 days where Bishop took education leave for a legislative conference. Experts said that means Bishop may have been paid an additional $1,600 he did not earn. FOX 8 emailed Bishop in October, telling him of the records gathered from SUNO and asking for an interview on camera. Bishop’s public relations representative wanted to know the subject matter of the records and questions. The request was mostly for timesheets and travel records. FOX 8 said it would go into more detail after the interview was scheduled.

More emails were exchanged that day, and then there was no communication for six days. In early November, they asked for more clarity on the story. FOX 8 told them how it involves how Bishop balances his legislative and SUNO duties, and they were aware that FOX 8 had requested several years of time sheets.

“We’d like to schedule an interview. He is an elected official. He should answer questions. We will be happy to provide you with talking points/topics after we get an interview scheduled, so Senator Bishop can be prepared," an email from FOX 8 said.

Almost a week had passed and there was no response, so FOX 8 went to Bishop’s SUNO office hoping to find the senator. After 30 minutes of waiting in the hall, an employee brought the FOX 8 crew into a conference room. A short time later, Bishop opened the door.

Lee Zurik: How do you take time off when in the Legislature?

Bishop: Take leave.

Zurik: What kind?

Bishop: Earned leave.

Zurik: Sick leave?

Bishop: Earned sick leave.

Zurik: How can you justify taking sick leave?

Bishop asked FOX 8 to see the documentation and for time to answer the questions. He said he did not want to answer in a 30-second soundbite.

The state senator reiterated he wanted to see the documentation which included his time sheets, which records show Bishop himself submitted.

Bishop asked why FOX 8 would not provide questions when asked about an on-camera interview. FOX 8 offered to give Bishop his documentation. The state senator and SUNO employee said after reviewing the documents, he would be “happy to respond.”

Bishop has not agreed to do an interview, but in an email told FOX 8: “The leave requests that were submitted and approved for the periods in question were done so based upon Louisiana Attorney General’s Opinion 81-556 which allows for the use of earned accumulated leave during the legislative session by State Representative and/or State Senators.”

Joel Friedman calls Bishop’s justification ridiculous.

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