When Louisiana voters picked John Bel Edwards as governor, ending a 15-election statewide Democratic losing streak that spanned seven years, they were seeking a complete break from the policies and practices of Bobby Jindal.
In many ways, the new governor has delivered, insisting that the state operate on an honestly balanced budget and focusing his energies on the problems of Louisiana, rather than the voters of Iowa.
But there is one slice of the governor’s portfolio where voters deserve change and are not getting it — in the management of a state prison system dominated for two decades by Angola Warden Burl Cain. Cain was popular with the state’s powerful sheriffs, and in many cases, his corrections department kept their overbuilt jails filled with lucrative state inmates, but he repeatedly blurred the lines between his state job and his personal financial interests. He retired last year after The Advocate reported that he had entered into a business partnership with two wealthy and powerful men, each of them linked to an inmate who received special treatment.
Three of Cain’s relatives have since left the prison system, each of them resigning or retiring after The Advocate filed public records requests for documents that would demonstrate whether they showed up for work or how they spent money with state credit cards.
Edwards, who received a key endorsement from the sheriffs in his runoff tilt with U.S. Sen. David Vitter, passed up a chance to mend the corrections department’s toxic culture when he retained Jindal’s secretary, Jimmy LeBlanc, Cain’s close friend and former business partner.
LeBlanc’s lackluster supervision of the Cain family occurred chiefly under Jindal’s watch, but the new governor is protecting the corrections secretary by refusing to make public receipts from state credit cards at the Avoyelles Correctional Center, where Burl Cain’s son, Nate, served until recently as warden. The receipts detail $82,000 in questionable purchases with state credit cards issued to four employees of the Cottonport lockup. Many of the purchases were made at retail outlets such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Academy Sports.
The Advocate requested the public records in April, and while state law mandates a response in three working days, the Edwards administration waited two months before refusing to make the records public.
The administration claims the documents are currently exempt from the state’s public records law because they pertain to an ongoing investigation.
But routine public records, such as receipts for purchases made with state credit cards, do not become exempt from disclosure because of investigations. Under the administration’s interpretation — where a public official can shield records and avoid embarrassment by launching an investigation, or claiming to do so — Louisiana might as well not have a public records law at all.
Under LeBlanc’s leadership, Cain and his relatives wasted money, helped their friends, and made up their own rules as they went along. If the new governor wants taxpayers to believe that his secretary can conduct an honest probe of Nate Cain, keeping secrets is a bad way to start.