Louisiana’s legislative auditor and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections each have opened reviews into the private real estate dealings of Burl Cain, the long-tenured warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who did business with family and friends of inmates in apparent violation of corrections rules.
But the Corrections Department review won’t be overseen by Secretary James LeBlanc, who recused himself from the matter.
The separate probes come as Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards is considering who to appoint to his Cabinet, including corrections secretary. Edwards takes office Jan. 11; typically, most appointments are announced before inauguration day.
Last month, The Advocate reported Cain, 73, sold interests in large tracts of West Feliciana Parish land several years ago to two prominent real estate developers — both friends or family of two murderers who have received favorable treatment at Angola — in separate deals.
Cain invested more than $2 million in the properties just before the national recession began in 2008. One of the developers took on more than $1 million in debt on some of the property.
“What I read in your recent articles was enough to make me put a team together to look at the issues” raised in the stories, Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera said Friday. His office is charged with investigating the finances and practices of state agencies.
Over the years, the office has criticized Cain’s dealings in a handful of reports, including one highlighting a controversial private chicken-deboning plant that benefited from cheap inmate labor at Dixon Correctional Institute when Cain was warden there.
Other legislative audits ripped Cain for continuing to live in the warden’s house at DCI for nearly a decade after he became warden at Angola. The arrangement meant that his replacement at DCI — LeBlanc, now Cain’s boss — couldn’t live at the prison. The state also had to pay LeBlanc a housing allowance as a result.
Cain’s more recent business entanglements with the developers in West Feliciana Parish appear to violate a Department of Public Safety and Corrections rule that bars employees from having “nonprofessional relationships with offenders or with offenders’ families or friends.”
The Corrections Department’s review of the matter will be handled by Undersecretary Thomas Bickham, said agency spokeswoman Pam Laborde, adding that she expects it will be complete before the Christmas holiday.
She said LeBlanc, Cain’s supervisor, opted to recuse himself to avoid questions of favoritism. Cain and LeBlanc are close friends and have been in business partnerships together in the past.
“(LeBlanc) and Warden Cain have worked together for more than 30 years, and his impartiality would more than likely be called into question by The Advocate, its sources and perhaps others,” Laborde said. “It is best for the overall process that he does not take part in the review.”
State Rep. Kenneth Havard, R-Jackson, a Cain critic, said he’ll be among those watching the investigations closely.
“If these allegations are true, it’s an unfortunate situation that puts a black eye on the corrections community,” he said.
“Angola is not in my district, but the majority of employees who work there are in my district. (Dixon Correctional Institute) is also in my district. So it’s very important to me to see that correctional officers are treated the same as Burl Cain.
“You can’t have two sets of rules, one for Burl Cain and one for the rest of the correctional officers.”
Havard said he is researching how correctional officers accused of inappropriate relationships with inmates or their families have been disciplined in the past. But he said he believes many of them have been punished harshly.
Havard and Cain have tangled numerous times before, most recently when one of Cain’s friends and former business partners, Ronnie Jett, challenged Havard in the Oct. 24 election. Havard prevailed.
Laborde, of the DPSC, said by email that “Secretary LeBlanc’s decision to recuse himself from the review process underscores the Department’s commitment to reaching a fair conclusion.”
Cain has served as Angola’s warden for two decades, garnering praise for his efforts on prison reform, leavened with a generous dose of religious proselytizing. A call for Cain’s firing came last month from Alida Anthony, whose son was murdered by Jason Lormand. Lormand’s stepfather was one of the developers who did business with Cain.
Edwards, through a spokeswoman, declined to say whether he’s considering keeping LeBlanc as corrections secretary.
Staff writer Steve Hardy contributed to this report.