A state audit of credit card use by Louisiana correctional employees found major red flags across the prison system and zeroed in on one card assigned to an employee at Avoyelles Correctional Center that was used for thousands of dollars in questionable purchases, including “oil-rubbed bathroom fixtures” costing almost $4,000.
A separate review of public records by The Advocate found other problems with credit card use at the same facility in Cottonport, whose warden, Nate Cain, recently resigned amid probes by at least two state agencies. Among them: Nearly $10,000 was spent at a furniture store owned by the husband of the employee who bought the bathroom fixtures.
Corrections officials told the newspaper Thursday that the state inspector general recently had made them aware of those furniture purchases, which were for the warden’s house and office. They say the purchase of such items from a store owned by an employee’s husband appears to violate ethics laws, though they said that determination will be up to the Ethics Board.
Some of the furniture is in the warden’s office, corrections spokeswoman Natalie LaBorde said. She added that officials “believe that the other furniture is located in the warden’s house, however, we have not been able to inventory the house as it has only just been released from the IG’s Office this week.”
She said corrections employees will inspect the home within the next few days to check on the furniture.
Both the audit and The Advocate’s review suggest the questionable spending could be far more pervasive, with state taxpayers on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in charges at retail outlets like Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Academy Sports.
But the audit was limited in scope, with only a small number of cards and purchases sampled, and the newspaper’s efforts to dig deeper have been stymied by the refusal of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to allow reporters to review receipts documenting the suspect purchases.
The receipts sought by the newspaper cover roughly $82,000 in purchases made during the last seven months of 2015 with state credit cards issued to four employees of the Cottonport lockup.
More than half of the purchases the newspaper is seeking to review were made with a credit card issued to Jodie Bordelon, a procurement specialist who reported to Tonia Cain, who was the prison’s business manager and is the wife of former Warden Nate Cain. Both Cains recently resigned amid a series of investigations into the prison, although they cited Nate Cain’s poor health as their reason for quitting.
Jodie Bordelon’s husband, Sidney Bordelon, owns the furniture store in Hessmer where the four purchases flagged by The Advocate were made. The purchases, totaling $9,121, were made with a card billed to Andrea Bordelon, an administrative assistant at the prison who is apparently unrelated to Sidney and Jodie Bordelon.
Andrea Bordelon reported to Paul Gaspard, a deputy warden who recently retired after an internal probe charged him with malfeasance, finding that he, Nate Cain and others conspired to tank an investigation into a rape claim made by an inmate.
None of the Bordelons returned phone or email messages from The Advocate. Repeated messages left at the store, KNNS Furniture, also were not returned. On a recent visit, the store appeared to be shuttered.
Jill Craft, a lawyer for Tonia and Nate Cain, stressed that neither one of them had a credit card in their own name.
The receipts were first requested by the newspaper on April 5, more than 10 weeks ago. Though state law requires officials to provide public records within three working days, it wasn’t until June 8 that corrections officials finally told The Advocate that they would not be providing the records.
The Edwards administration contends the receipts are exempt from public records laws because an investigation is underway that may lead to “criminal litigation.” Officials have promised that the documents will be turned over to the newspaper once that review is complete.
Scott Keaty, an attorney for The Advocate, said he believes the administration is misreading the public records law. Routine public records, such as receipts for purchases made with state credit cards, do not become exempt because of investigations, in Keaty’s view.
The exception the state’s lawyers are citing is meant to protect records created by investigators — such as a detective’s notes or memos — during the course of a probe.
Scott Sternberg, a lawyer who often litigates First Amendment issues but does not represent The Advocate, agreed with Keaty’s interpretation.
“The type of record you’re requesting is the textbook type of document that the public records law exists for,” Sternberg said. “If people can’t check government spending, then what’s the point of having the law?”
He called the administration’s interpretation “a real stretch.”
The state’s audit into credit card use, while superficial, found a host of problems, including that cardholders often bought things that had no valid business purpose and failed to provide backup documentation for the purchases. The audit, completed April 18, gave the department failing grades for compliance. LaBorde, the corrections spokeswoman, said such audits are conducted annually.
The review spot-checked credit card use over a six-month period for 30 of the 147 corrections department employees who were assigned state credit cards. One of the cards was assigned to Jodie Bordelon, and after initial testing, her card was flagged for further review.
Auditors questioned roughly $5,200 in purchases made with her card during the six-month period, all of which were approved by Tonia Cain and two other employees.
Among them: $3,356 spent on the bathroom fixtures; $1,000 spent on four high-end Yeti coolers; plus routine personal purchases like coffee, creamer, pet food and toilet paper.
The audit includes a response from Nate Cain, who writes that he “checked and found that all items purchased are physically here at the institution.” Cain’s response offers an explanation for many of the purchases, though he does not say what the pricey bathroom fixtures were for. The coolers, for instance, were for the prison’s chase and tactical teams, he says.
Cain wrote that he “met with the approvers and procurement staff and made clear that purchases MUST be reviewed more carefully, not just in an effort to ensure departmental funds are spent wisely and efficiently but so that any hint of impropriety be avoided.”
He also said he was transferring his wife back to the prison records office and away from her position as business manager, “in an effort to stop even the hint of impropriety.”
Cain went on paid leave shortly after writing that response, and he and his wife both resigned in late May.
The audit said the disputed items should be returned, but it does not say whether they were. LaBorde said “the items that we believe were for personal use have been referred to the inspector general and are a part of their ongoing investigations.” She did not say which items those were.
Craft, the couple’s attorney, scoffed at the idea that there had been any credit card abuse. She said the items were accounted for and all had legitimate purposes, and were thus left at the prison.
She also bristled at an assertion in the audit that “a potential conflict of interest exists since Tonia Cain … is married to and ultimately reports to Nathan Cain … has approval authority over the cardholder and approvers and has the ability to influence purchases as well as approve them.”
Auditors recommended that Tonia Cain no longer be in the position of approving purchases.
Craft called the passage irresponsible and said its meaning was unclear. “I don’t see anything that says Tonia or Nate Cain influenced any of the purchases,” Craft said. “I think it’s garbage. If they have any evidence that Nate or Tonia Cain had influenced any purchases, they would have put it in this report.”
Nowhere in the audit does it say who is thought to have benefited from the questionable purchases, though it recommends the suspension of Jodie Bordelon’s credit card.
The audit also says the questioned purchases “may violate” the state ethics code’s prohibition against “a public servant’s use of the authority of his office to compel or coerce a person to provide himself or someone else with a thing of economic value,” but it does not elaborate.
The audit also makes no mention of a separate set of credit card purchases that have come under question recently. Those purchases, totaling more than $76,000, were associated with building a 4,000-square-foot “ranch house” at the Cottonport prison — a project top corrections officials have since said was not authorized by headquarters.
They shut the project down late last year after getting wind of it. By then, Avoyelles prison officials had used credit cards to make more than 50 purchases related to the building. The piecemeal approach allowed them to skirt state bid laws, which require that bids be sought on purchases of $5,000 or more.
It’s not clear what the purpose of the ranch house was, but some prison employees have said Nate Cain intended to live in it. Several months after the project began, it was rebranded as a “special operations command center,” invoices show.
Correctional officials have said that if the house had gotten proper authorization, the plans would have had to be drawn by an architect and bids would have been sought for construction.
More broadly, the audit warns that the broad use of credit cards at the corrections department creates major exposure for the department, and for taxpayers. Taken together, the 147 department credit cards could be used to ring up $4.1 million in purchases every month.
Moreover, some of the department’s institutions give out far too many cards, auditors said. They spotlighted Rayburn Correctional Center, where 32 employees hold state credit cards, far more than at any other state prison. They recommend that the number of cards there be pared back to a maximum of seven.
The audit also noted that a single state employee is responsible for reviewing approximately 20,000 purchases made each year with state credit cards held by correctional workers. That system “is ineffective and further increases the risk of misuse/fraud abuse,” the audit says.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.