The Department of Public Safety and Corrections is refusing to release an internal review into former Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola Warden Burl Cain, saying it is exempt from public records laws.
The department’s decision came Tuesday, the same day Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards reappointed DPSC Secretary James LeBlanc, a close friend and associate of Cain’s and the only Cabinet-level official to remain from outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration.
A letter to The Advocate from Susan Wall Griffin, attorney to the secretary, says the department’s investigative report and a yet-to-be-completed “findings and recommendations report” are both “exempted” from public records laws. Griffin’s letter does not say why she believes that is the case.
Some legislators say LeBlanc will have to answer to the public about the review one way or another. The issue is likely to come up during his Senate confirmation hearings if the report has not been released by then, they said.
“(LeBlanc) can expect that senators, on behalf of their constituents, are going to ask the status of this investigation and have questions related to it. Really right now, it is the big, it is the issue that’s hanging over his head,” said Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, chairman of the Senate committee overseeing the Corrections Department.
Cain, 73, unexpectedly announced his resignation in early December, a month after The Advocate reported he’d entered into expensive realestate deals with two men with ties to favored inmates, an apparent breach of corrections rules. The internal DPSC review, announced after The Advocate’s stories, aimed to determine whether Cain in fact violated DPSC’s policies barring “non-professional relationships” with offenders and their families, according to DPSC spokeswoman Pam Laborde.
Griffin’s denial cites R.S. 44:3, which includes exemptions of records pertaining to law enforcement investigations. The state Inspector General’s Office and the State Police are conducting a criminal probe into Cain that has led them to interview employees at Angola and scrutinize some timesheets. But that probe is unrelated to the internal review into Cain’s real-estate dealings outlined by Laborde.
Griffin did not respond to multiple requests for explanation of the denials.
Griffin last month separately denied a request from The Advocate for records regarding the employment of Kenneth Norris, the former head of internal investigations at Angola. Norris, who is married to Cain’s niece, announced his retirement days after The Advocate asked for his personnel files, including payroll records and timesheets. Norris said he retired for health reasons.
“It’s mind-boggling. My mind is actually boggled as I’m talking to you,” said Morrell, of the denials by DPSC, an agency that has provided The Advocate with personnel information on other employees.
“If you’ve gotten (personnel records) previously and then not gotten these two, it almost creates its own red herring,” he said.
Asked Tuesday about the status of the review into Cain, LeBlanc said, “We haven’t released no reports yet. I haven’t seen anything.” Due to his close affiliation with Cain, LeBlanc recused himself from the probe, which is being supervised by DPSC Undersecretary Thomas Bickham.
Last month, LeBlanc indicated the internal review would be submitted to state Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, who announced a parallel probe of Cain’s realestate dealings.
Jenifer Schaye, general counsel for the legislative auditor, said Wednesday that she could not say whether that office has received a copy of Bickham’s investigation, but “when and if they send a copy of the report, it will be part of our audit work papers, which are not subject to public review.”
However, Schaye added, that special exemption covers only the legislative auditor’s papers; it does not exempt other agencies, such as the DPSC, from having to provide them.
Julie Baxter Payer, a spokeswoman for Edwards, who will be inaugurated Monday, said the incoming governor’s executive counsel is researching whether the review of Cain should be released.
“The public is entitled to know these types of things,” said Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, who calls himself “the transparency guy” and who sponsored a law to take effect Monday that would make records from the Governor’s Office more accessible.
“I’m confident that when LeBlanc comes up for confirmation, Senate governmental affairs folks are gonna ask him questions on that,” he said.
Staff writer Gordon Russell contributed to this report.
?This article has been updated to reflect the spelling of the name of the legislative auditor's general counsel. She is Jenifer Schaye, not Jennifer Shea.