Defenders of the status quo at the state corrections department cheered last month when three separate probes cleared Burl Cain, former warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Investigators left a lot of questions on the table, though, and voters may not be as impressed. The probes dealt with activities that occurred before Gov. John Bel Edwards took office. But it’s up to the new governor, who left Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc in place from the previous administration, to make sure the Department of Public Safety and Corrections is accountable. Judging by what’s been done so far to hold the department’s feet to the fire, Edwards has some work to do.
One of the investigations was by Cain’s own department. The probe found the former warden did not violate personnel rules when he entered into an investment deal with two wealthy and powerful businessmen, each with ties to an inmate in the state prison system. Because LeBlanc is Cain’s friend and former business partner, the no-foul finding was hardly a surprise.
But the other two probes were conducted by the State Police and the state Inspector General’s Office, agencies that might have been expected to do their jobs with curiosity and diligence. Each fell short of that mark.
State Police found “no probable cause” to believe that former Assistant Warden Kenneth Norris committed payroll fraud. Norris is married to Cain’s niece and was employed by the prison for 15 years, even though he was not required to account for his whereabouts.
State Police cleared him in a single-page letter, but a seven-page narrative of the probe, released by local District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla, suggests the gumshoes failed to conduct a rigorous investigation.
The probe examined only six months of Norris’ 15-year employment. Investigators found that Norris was listed as working for five days when he was in the hospital. Norris attributed the mistake to the employee who kept his attendance records — who happens to be his niece. The sleuths might have demanded written records, but they contented themselves when Norris “verbally provided” the dates of his hospitalization.
Norris was asked “if he maintained a daily journal of his work-related activities, and he stated he did not.”
Norris also said he was allowed to work from his home in Vernon Parish, four hours from Angola, but Cain said he was not — a conflict State Police left unresolved.
Then there is the probe by the state inspector general, tasked with determining whether prison employees worked on two homes owned by Cain.
That report says “a number of Angola employees” reported working on one or more of Cain’s homes and adds that “these employees indicated that they were not forced or pressured to do the work.” Cain would not cooperate, so it’s impossible to know whether the investigation found every single employee who worked on his homes. Already, two have come forward to say they were not paid, and the investigators never questioned them.
Greg Phares, a lead investigator on the case, told The Advocate he didn’t remember talking to anyone who said they hadn’t been paid at all for work on Cain’s homes but “it is my recollection that some were not compensated to the value of the leave time that they took.”
That fact was omitted from the report.
Having employees work on the home of the boss is not the standard at most state agencies, much less private businesses. And employees who worked involuntarily will not come forward if they have no confidence the state can conduct an honest investigation.
None of these investigations would pass the smell test at West Point, where Edwards was once vice chairman of the Honor Committee. And they won’t pass muster with the voters who believed in his integrity and elected him governor.