The state ethics board has opened an investigation into the no-bid hiring of a relative of Louisiana corrections secretary Jimmy LeBlanc to help convert an old police building in downtown Baton Rouge into part of the correctional department’s headquarters.

The probe comes a few months after The Advocate spotlighted the arrangement, which has earned the Baton Rouge architecture firm GraceHebert more than half a million dollars in fees.

The firm’s principal, Jerry Hebert, is married to LeBlanc’s niece. Meanwhile, Hebert’s son-in-law, Joe Buttross, is a key official at Prison Enterprises, the branch of the state corrections department that will occupy the building.

Buttross has been deeply involved in the roughly $7 million project to renovate what’s known as “Building 10,” records show.

The ethics board probe could be exploring the question the newspaper raised in its December report: whether the contract violates a portion of state ethics law that prohibits people or companies they own from getting contracts from an agency that employs a close relative.

Under the ethics law, Hebert and Buttross are considered immediate family. Corrections officials previously told The Advocate that they don’t believe the prohibition applies in the case of the Building 10 project because the state agency contracting with Hebert is not Prison Enterprises, but a public benefit corporation set up to handle corrections projects.

Richard Carbo, a spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said that the administration “is aware of the fact an investigation exists, but not aware of the details at this point.”

He said the administration did not request the inquiry but will cooperate completely.

Kathleen Allen, an ethics board lawyer, did not return a message from The Advocate about the probe. Hebert referred questions about the probe to his lawyer, Gray Sexton, who formerly served as counsel to the ethics board.

“It’s my understanding that these investigations are strictly confidential, and that it’s a misdemeanor to reveal anything about one,” Sexton said. “I don’t think we can have a very productive conversation about a confidential investigation.”

A spokesman for the corrections department likewise declined to comment. And a lawyer for the department declined to provide copies of subpoenas requested by The Advocate, citing the same law Sexton cited.

Who GraceHebert’s client is could be a key question in the ethics inquiry. And it could be a tricky one to answer. GraceHebert’s checks come from the Louisiana Correctional Facilities Corp., but its invoices are all sent to Prison Enterprises. And officials from Prison Enterprises, including Buttross, have attended the LCFC’s quarterly meetings to brief that agency on the project’s progress.

The question of whether GraceHebert should have been barred from getting the contract is likely at the center of the ethics inquiry. But it’s hardly the only question about the unusual building project.

For instance, there was no solicitation process for choosing an architect. Corrections officials note that by law, they were not required to put that kind of work out to bid, although they often do so.

They likewise eschewed any competitive process when they hired Gary Shotwell, a former corrections official, to oversee the work.

Shotwell worked under LeBlanc for years when LeBlanc was warden of Dixon Correctional Center. He also oversaw renovations to LeBlanc’s house during that time. LeBlanc has described that work as modest, and stressed that he paid Shotwell for everything he did.

The corrections department is currently weighing new rules that would prohibit supervisors from hiring subordinates to work on their private homes because of the potential for conflict.

Normally, construction and renovation work on public projects must be bid competitively.

But the Building 10 project is unusual in two respects: Much of the work has been performed by inmate laborers, and some of the work is being done on behalf of a private entity – the Department of Corrections Credit Union – that will occupy part of it when it’s done. Ellen Dunn, the credit union’s CEO, did not return a message for comment.

Those factors muddy the waters somewhat, although Jenifer Schaye, general counsel for the state legislative auditor, has previously told The Advocate that she believes the work should have been bid, based on her reading of the relevant laws.

That question, however, may be outside the purview of the Ethics Board.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @GordonRussell1.