Burl Cain is gone from Angola — but not from the state payroll — and last week three separate investigations found that he broke no rules. Even so, the probes left lingering questions about how the state’s Corrections Department is being managed.
Cain was the dominant figure at the department for two decades, and he leaves behind an organization where job responsibilities and private business interests and family relations and personal friendships are so closely interwoven that they are often indistinguishable.
It was that culture that gave rise to the state investigations, which were partly in response to coverage in The Advocate of the former warden’s business dealings. Cain entered into an investment partnership with two businessmen, each of whom had a rooting interest in a state inmate. One of the inmates, the stepson of one of the business partners, had advanced to become a trusty in the Governor’s Mansion. Another inmate, a friend of an investor, benefited when Cain obtained an unusual deathbed confession that was used by the offender to seek a new trial.
Rule 14.f of the department employee manual bans “nonprofessional relationships with offenders or with offenders’ families or friends.”
In absolving Cain, the Corrections Department concluded there is a “long-standing consensus” that the provision was meant to ban only romantic relationships — in effect clearing Cain by making the rule more lenient through a focus on what it “intended” rather that what it plainly says. The department goes on to suggest that the rule could be written more clearly. The report also says Cain “should have used better judgment” when he took it upon himself to record the confession.
Another probe determined that while Cain’s employees did work on his private home, they were not on the state time sheet, and Cain paid them.
A third investigation focused on Kenneth Norris, an Angola employee who is married to Cain’s niece. He retired last year, a few days after The Advocate filed a public records request for prison gate logs that would demonstrate how often he showed up for work. The Advocate’s public records request was filed when Bobby Jindal was governor, but Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration, which cleared Norris of any criminal wrongdoing, has refused to release the gate logs.
Until his administration produces the records, Edwards will continue to be vexed by the perception that he is hiding something.
After the release of the three findings, Cain issued a statement claiming Edwards had run him off, and the governor responded by saying that the warden retired on his own. Cain remains on paid leave until Aug. 31, which allows him to collect $134,000 for not working — all of which won’t look like a square deal to state taxpayers being asked to fork over a billion dollars in new revenue.
If Edwards did show Cain the door, it would be an encouraging sign since the warden counts among his fans Louisiana’s powerful sheriffs, many of whom rely on the Corrections Department to keep their overbuilt jails supplied with state inmates. Edwards benefitted from a high-profile endorsement from the sheriffs in his runoff campaign, but voters need to see evidence that the new governor is committed to ending Louisiana’s reign as the world’s leading jailer — which would cut the head count at parish jails.
Since Cain is gone, it might seem like a waste of time to wonder whether he broke the rules. But the key question going forward centers on the fitness of corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, a Jindal appointee Edwards kept on, and whether Cain was supervised appropriately. LeBlanc was Cain’s boss. But he also was Cain’s friend, and his former business partner.