Outgoing Angola warden Burl Cain is the subject of a new criminal investigation by the state Inspector General’s office, an official said Wednesday, hours after Cain appeared on two television stations to explain his sudden announcement last week that he’s retiring after two decades at the state’s largest prison.
The criminal probe is apparently unrelated to a side business deal of Cain’s that was exposed by The Advocate in November. The newspaper’s report showed the warden had been involved in expensive land deals with family and friends of two preferred inmates, spurring two state probes into whether the arrangement violated Department of Public Safety and Corrections rules.
It’s not clear what the IG’s new probe centers on.
“The Inspector General’s office is currently conducting an investigation, which is different from what your newspaper has reported on, but I would not be at liberty to comment on the nature of that investigation, nor at this point are we prepared to accuse of Cain of any wrongdoing,” said Greg Phares, chief investigator at the IG’s office.
Cain, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Advocate, told WAFB-TV and WBRZ-TV that political disagreement over this year’s election for House District 62 led a state representative to feed information about him to the newspaper. The district, though it does not include the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, is home to many correctional workers.
In airing his suspicions, Cain raised new questions about his influence in local politics and his own public flirtations with a run at the governor’s seat. State civil servants like Cain are barred from engaging in certain kinds of political activity.
Cain said Rep. Kenny Havard, R-Jackson, who won re-election to the District 62 seat this year, was angry that Cain’s former employee and one-time business partner Ronnie Jett qualified to run against him at the last minute, convinced the warden had put his pal up to it. Cain called a meeting with the representative to prove that wasn’t the case, and during the meeting, even called Jett to ask him to end his run.
“And then what happened was, Rep. Havard just grabbed the phone back and said (to Jett), ‘Well, I tell you one thing, you can’t win, and what’s gonna happen here today is there’s gonna be some collateral damage,’ ” Cain told WAFB-TV.
Though Havard won the election, Cain said he believes the representative is still angry and is leaking information about him as retribution.
Havard had a slightly different memory of the meeting, which took place at a conference room at the Bluffs Resort in St. Francisville.
Havard says the warden brought two friends — his boss, corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, and Paul Perkins, who runs a private firm that supervises state inmates on work release.
Cain and LeBlanc were partners with Jett in a company that owned convenience stores around St. Francisville. The pair were also partners with Perkins in a business.
Havard says Cain did volunteer to try and persuade Jett to get out of the race. Havard told him not to do so on his account, but Cain nonetheless called Jett.
“He said, ‘Ronnie, you’re putting everyone in a bind; you’re stressing friendships; you can’t win. I’m asking you to get out,’ ” Havard said.
At the same meeting, Havard says, the warden mentioned that Jett paid for a poll done on his behalf in late 2014 or early 2015 when Cain was considering a run for governor.
Asked by The Advocate on Wednesday whether he actually paid for a poll, Jett replied: “I don’t know.” Asked to clarify, he paused and then hung up the phone. He did not respond to subsequent calls or texts.
Perkins confirmed being at the meeting, but said he had no comment about what happened.
LeBlanc also confirmed his attendance, saying through a spokeswoman that he was there to make clear “that Ronnie Jett was solely responsible for his decision” to challenge Havard. The spokeswoman, Pam Laborde, added that LeBlanc was “pretty adamant” there was no discussion of a poll at the meeting.
The meeting “wasn’t about politics; it was about two people getting along for the good of Corrections,” she added.
Havard said he thought the warden had violated state civil service rules both by commissioning a poll and by trying to persuade Jett to drop out of the race.
But Lindsay Ruiz, a spokeswoman for Louisiana State Civil Service, said that the service has no authority over private conversations, “so if Burl called that person and told them not to run, that wouldn’t be classified as prohibited.”
Regarding the poll, Ruiz said that if it was done independently, Cain would not have a problem. “You can’t stop anyone from doing a poll,” she said. “But no classified employee can commission a poll.”
Ruiz added that Cain had alerted Civil Service last December when signs bearing his name appeared.
“He said signs were going up and it was not him, and he was not a candidate,” she said. “And he actually solicited a legal opinion from us, and we advised him that if he decided to run, he would have to resign his civil service position.”
Cain announced in August that he decided against running.
Both Havard and Cain agree their bad blood predates the warden’s recent troubles — a history Cain alluded to briefly in his TV appearances.
Havard’s wife’s stepfather, Errol Klein, is the brother of Dan Klein, who a decade ago accused Cain of shaking him down for a donation to his prison chapel fund. Klein reported the alleged extortion attempt to the FBI, which supplied him with $1,000 that he in turn gave to Cain. Klein also wore a wire for the FBI to capture conversations with the warden and others.
Cain was never charged in that probe, but three others were, including Jim Leslie, a high-ranking corrections official who was caught on Klein’s wire warning him not to say anything incriminating.
At the time, the Klein brothers had long had a contract to supply livestock to the Angola Prison Rodeo. After Klein went public with his accusations, the specifications were changed, and he lost the bid.
Despite that history, Havard said Wednesday that when he first decided to run for state representative in 2011, he went to Cain straightaway to “kiss the ring.”
“I went to all the politicos, and he may have been the first,” Havard said.
Cain told him then that Jett was running for the same office, and that he’d be supporting Jett. The warden also warned Havard he didn’t have enough money to win, and he bragged of being able to deliver the votes of many state workers, Havard said.
“I told him, ‘I’m gonna show you there’s a whole ‘nother world outside the gates of Angola,’ ” Havard recalled. “And our political sparring goes back to that moment.”
Cain’s startling departure comes as Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards is announcing his cabinet appointments. The warden has denied that any of his dealings outlined by The Advocate were illegal or unethical. Cain has been the subject of at least two FBI investigations during his 20-year tenure as Angola warden.
“Everything in the paper was seven years old and older. Nothing was criminal. I’ve been looked at forever, everybody in the world investigated us,” he said.
When asked about the West Feliciana Parish land transactions described in The Advocate, which appear to be a violation of a corrections rule barring “nonprofessional relationships with offenders or with offenders’ families or friends,” Cain responded: “It was very professional.”
He added the land deals were filed in the courthouse and were “recorded, so there was nothing wrong.”
Laborde has said the corrections department’s review of Cain’s real estate dealings should be done by Christmas.