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Advocate staff photo by BRYAN TUCK -- Louisiana State Penitentiary Warden Burl Cain speaks about his career and the prison he runs in Angola, Louisiana Tuesday to a group of criminal justice students at South Louisiana Community College in Lafayette.

When Burl Cain hands over the keys to the warden’s house that was built for him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola a decade ago, the state’s highest-paid civil servant will say goodbye to the prison he oversaw for 20 years — but not the state payroll.

Cain had been scheduled to leave Angola last week after announcing in December that he’d step down Jan. 1, but he’s now been given an extension to stay in the warden’s house until March 7, according to Pam Laborde, a spokeswoman for the state correctional department. Laborde said Cain is in the process of buying a new house, and the extra time will allow him “to move his family and pets out in an orderly fashion.”

Even after he leaves the prison, Cain is due to collect a regular paycheck through the end of August under a practice called “burning leave,” which is common in state government but almost unheard of in the private sector. He’ll draw roughly $134,000 in regular paychecks during that time without having to work.

Louisiana civil service rules are generous when it comes to leave, allowing employees to accrue unused time off at eye-popping rates and carry it over from year to year. The rules also allow most employees to cash out much of their leave when they quit, or else have it count as time worked when their retirement is figured.

But in Cain’s particular case, he needed — and was granted — special permission to take his payout, as he’d already benefited from a now-closed loophole that allowed him to cash in on retirement savings, even though he was swiftly rehired.

With Louisiana’s budget awash in red ink — the Legislature is in a special session to try to close a budget shortfall of about $900 million — some observers wonder whether it’s time to revisit these practices that result in certain employees walking away from state work with piles of extra cash.

Steven Procopio, policy director at the watchdog Public Affairs Research Council, says he thinks Louisiana’s Civil Service Commission should consider moving toward “a more private system with a cap on how much you can keep.” In the meantime, he believes discretionary requests, like Cain’s, should be turned away.

Cain is in a distinct class of retirees: He is one of a relatively small number of state employees who took advantage of a 2001 state law that allowed them to begin receiving retirement benefits after quitting and being immediately rehired. As a result of that maneuver, Cain already has collected roughly $800,000 in pension benefits.

But because “retire/rehire” employees already have been technically retired, they can’t fold their unused leave into their retirement like other employees can. So when they quit for good, they generally may cash out a maximum of 300 hours, or 71/2 weeks, of unused leave, said state civil service spokeswoman Lindsay Ruiz de Chavez. They lose the rest.

And Cain stood to lose plenty. Over his 40-year corrections career, Cain had racked up almost 3,000 hours of unused annual leave, nearly 10 times the maximum payout. (He had a similar amount of sick leave, which can’t be cashed out.)

Whether a retiring employee in Cain’s position gets to cash out any of that balance is largely up to his boss, Ruiz de Chavez said. Some state departments or agencies have caps on how much can be burned: For instance, for employees of the secretary of state, the maximum is 240 hours, spokeswoman Meg Casper said.

But the Department of Public Safety and Corrections has no such rule, and it, thus, fell to Cain’s former boss, business partner and longtime friend, corrections Secretary James LeBlanc, to decide how much paid time off Cain could take before retiring.

Though Cain abruptly resigned under the cloud of civil probes and, later, a criminal investigation, LeBlanc nonetheless signed off on eight months of extra pay. Laborde, the spokeswoman, stressed to The Advocate that the terms of Cain’s departure could change if any of the various investigations result in serious findings.

Although LeBlanc and Cain are close, Laborde said there was no favoritism in the deal. LeBlanc has signed off on similar benefits for other high-ranking “retire/rehire” employees, she noted — in fact, LeBlanc was more generous with some of those employees than he was with Cain.

Laborde provided records showing that, of six employees with the rank of assistant warden or above to retire in recent years, two were allowed to burn more leave hours than Cain. And five of the six were allowed to burn a greater percentage of their unused leave.

Cain, who worked at the corrections department for almost 40 years, had accumulated far more leave than any of the others. His hourly pay also was far higher — with a salary of $167,211, Cain was the highest-paid civil servant in the state at the time of his departure.

Whether Cain got a sweet deal, the capricious nature of leave-granting seems to conflict with perhaps the bedrock principle of civil service — that a uniform set of rules should be applied equitably to all employees, observers said. The current setup allows for department heads to bestow extremely generous benefits on favored employees while denying them to others without explanation or reason.

“It doesn’t seem to make sense that one agency does things one way and another does them another way, and the administrator has the ability to show favoritism in one case and not in another one,” said Barry Erwin, president of the good-government group Council for a Better Louisiana. “We probably ought to have something that applies uniformly to everyone.”

If officials were to create a single policy on burning leave, Procopio, of PAR, believes they should make the cap on how much can be burned pretty low, given the state’s dire financial straits.

“The state bears an unnecessary and excessive cost when state employees are able to take six months of leave plus the 300-hour payout,” Procopio said. “In light of current budget issues, the (Department of Public Safety and Corrections) should look to stop this practice.”

In the short run, there’s nothing preventing any state department from adopting a policy setting a “ceiling” on how much unused leave may be burned.

But a broader change, such as Procopio’s suggestion to limit how much unused leave can be carried over, would require action by the state Civil Service Commission. Six of the board’s seven members are appointed by the governor, from a list submitted by private universities.

It’s hard to say how much the ample leave policies — both the accrual of so much leave and the ability to “burn” it before leaving — cost the state. Officials do not track, in the aggregate, the value of the accrued leave state employees have built up.

There are 795 state employees who retired and were rehired, according to Stephen Stark, deputy general counsel for the Louisiana State Employees’ Retirement System. The vast majority of them are unable to fold unused leave into their retirement, he said.

In addition, any change to employee benefits likely would have to be prospective, meaning it would apply only to leave accrued in the future. So paring it back would do little to address Louisiana’s current cash crunch — it simply would improve the state’s position over the long haul.

On Twitter, follow Gordon Russell @gordonrussell1 and Maya Lau @mayalau.