Most cadets cleared, but cheating allegations cost Georgia State Patrol $2 million

File photo
File photo

When they learned who had failed the Speed Detection Operator Exam, the cadets in the 106th class of Georgia State Patrol troopers knew they were in trouble.

“I wanted to have a good grade, I’m worried because these other guys have already failed the test and you know, for what I know, these guys aren’t stupid,” classmate Troy Pudder would later tell investigators with the GSP. In fact, they were standouts — one was class president, the other a squad leader.

Their instructors at the state’s Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth were also worried. Passing the speed detection exam was required for graduation from the nine-month-long program. Retakes were prohibited. And an agency already understaffed and graying could ill-afford to lose a large segment of cadets.

ExploreCheating scandal costs state troopers their jobs

What followed would shake the agency to its core. An internal investigation by the GSP’s Office of Professional Standards ultimately concluded that virtually everyone who took the test had cheated. GSP head Mark McDonough dismissed them all, saying he would not abide a dishonest trooper. Two weeks later, McDonough announced his retirement, per Gov. Brian Kemp’s request.

The agency said the scandal ended up costing them $2 million, including revenue lost when 133 traffic citations issued by the troopers were tossed. The hit to the GSP’s reputation was just as damaging.

Then, in late January, the story took a dramatic turn. Georgia’s Peace Officers and Standards Training Council (POST), following a yearlong audit of the GSP’s training system, issued a nearly 8,000-page report clearing all but one of the 32 fired troopers.

So how did two sets of investigators, working with largely the same set of facts, reach such divergent conclusions?

Evidence overlooked

It would be four months before the GSP launched its probe of its newest class of troopers. The ex-girlfriend of one of the troopers told his supervisors she took the speed detection exam for him. When confronted with the allegation, that trooper, Demon Clark said he wasn’t the only cadet who had help with their test, according to the report.

A cursory look at the exam scores reveals a striking pattern. Five cadets completed the exam on either April 29 or 30, none scoring higher than a 74. Two failed the test altogether, scoring less than 70 percent.

But of the remaining cadets, all of whom took the test in May, none scored lower than 80. In fact, most aced the exam. Fourteen troopers scored 96 or better.

ExploreInvestigation clears 32 fired state troopers in cheating scandal

For investigators with the GSP and POST, a key question emerged: If the troopers who waited until May to take the exam had in fact cheated, who instigated the plan?

It all started with a meeting.

‘Use your resources’

After seeing the initial low exam scores, instructors Michael Stewart and Stewart Parker summoned the cadets in hopes of reaffirming the importance of the exam.

What they said, and how their students interpreted it, would form the basis of POST’s decision to clear the former troopers.

“Various troopers in the class believed from the statements made by instructor(s), such as ‘Don’t leave a trooper in the ditch,’ ‘Work together,’ ‘Use your resources,’ or other such terms meant they could work together,” the POST report stated.

Several of the former troopers told POST investigators they believed they could refer to their notes during the test, administered online.

“Those were our resources,” Daniel Cordell, a member of the 106th class, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

He said he interpreted the instructors’ statements as a command that had to be followed. Failure was not an option.

“We learned early on, if you questioned instructors you’d be on the pavement doing pushups,” Cordell said.

Jalin Anderson told GSP investigators he “didn’t really consider it cheating. It was one of those things where we just try to help each other out so no one will fail.”

Almost all of the former troopers turned to one of their own, Richard Justice, for help. He had taken the test before, while training for another job in law enforcement.

“There was a group of us that kinda sat down on the balcony and all took the test together,” Anderson said, according to the GSP report. “Trooper Justice was beside me giving me the answers.”

Justice told POST investigators he was never told directly to help his classmates, but felt he was a resource his classmates could use.

But some of the former troopers would acknowledge, under questioning, that they weren’t blameless.

“I mean, looking back now, it was probably something that we took from the mouth of the instructors and someone not misinterpreted but maybe twisted it into believing, ‘Hey, it’s OK if we do this,’” former trooper Pudder said.

GSP investigator Jason Ellis replied, “A good word for that to me would be rationalized.”

Former trooper Daysi Ramirez was even more direct in her interview with Ellis.

“It is cheating at the end of the day,” Ramirez said.

Still, it’s clear the message from their instructors was, at best, muddled.

At first, when speaking with GSP investigators, Parker was adamant that he never encouraged the cadets to “use their resources.”

He later backtracked.

“Did I say it? I don’t know, I don’t think so, uh, but no, yes, I would not imply any way of cheating,” said Parker, according to the GSP investigative report.

Later, Parker was asked by POST investigators if he thought it was possible that the class misinterpreted the instructions for the speed detection exam.

“He responded that anything was possible,” according to the POST report.

Extended adolescence

McDonough knew the high-profile incident would likely hasten his departure after 8½ years leading the GSP. Kemp had been looking to make a change, and now the governor had an opening.

“The person at the top is ultimately responsible,” McDonough said in an interview with the AJC just before his dismissal.

But it was clear the former Marine combat pilot was unimpressed with the recent crop of troopers.

“Adolescence has been extended in our society,” McDonough said.

But because qualified troopers were harder to come by, McDonough said the GSP was forced to make training more accommodating. For the first time, online testing was allowed.

In an interview last month, McDonough told the AJC he stands by his decision to fire the troopers.

“The evidence was pretty clear-cut,” he said. “I think we did the right thing based on the information we had at the time.”

Since the GSP’s report was issued, 28 troopers have filed whistleblower lawsuits against their former employer, according to lawyer Jeff Peil, who represents two of the plaintiffs.

The GSP, now led by Charles Wright, declined comment, citing pending civil litigation. The governor and lieutenant governor also declined interview requests.

More about intent’

POST executive director Mike Ayers opens with a caveat. His agency, he claims, decertifies more officers than any other state in the nation.

In this investigation, the certifications of two instructors and a cadet from the 106th class were revoked. Their names were not disclosed due to an ongoing appeals process.

“When we started the investigation I didn’t think it was just an integrity question,” Ayers told the AJC. “To me, it was more about intent. They thought they were doing what was asked of them. There was no intent to do anything improper.”

POST, said Ayers, deserved much of the blame. Since the scandal, the organization has implemented major changes to the training process, he said. The speed detection exam is once again proctored, for example. The 106th class wasn’t the first to use a collaborative approach for the test, investigators found, a key component of their probe.

GSP investigators, according to POST, was aware of the allegations against the 104th and 105th classes. But their focus remained on the 106th class, with the assumption that cheating had occurred.

“It’s conspiracy, is what it’s called in the criminal investigative world,” GSP investigator Ellis told one of the cadets. “You know, if you work a criminal case and you have two or more people talking … two or more folks planning … that’s called conspiracy.”

For one year, that was the impression Cordell, 32, and his fellow troopers had to live with. They were portrayed as a bunch of lazy millennials who cheated and schemed their way into a job.

“That’s not who I am,” said Cordell, who found a new occupation but still feels shortchanged that his dream to be a trooper was derailed.

“It still stings,” he said. “It didn’t have to happen.”

ABOUT OUR REPORTING

The news that Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council had reinstated credentials for 32 fired Georgia State Patrol troopers came as a surprise. One year earlier, an internal investigation by the GSP found the troopers, part of the 106th class, had conspired to cheat on a speed detection exam at their training academy. So how did two sets of investigators, operating with virtually the same set of facts, reach such different conclusions? The AJC obtained and reviewed POST’s 8,000 page report, compared it to GSP’s internal investigation, another 1,500 pages, and found what mattered to one set of investigators didn’t quite register with the other.

In Other News