Exactly what Kenny Norris did to earn his $94,000 a year as an assistant warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, or even where he spent his time, is impossible to know.
State Police tried to find out when they were called in by Darrel Vannoy late last year soon after he had been appointed to run the joint following the sudden resignation of Burl Cain.
Because Cain was the subject of a separate investigation himself, we were all agog to see if the good ol’ boy network would be up to the challenge. We needn’t have worried; a double whitewash was effortlessly delivered.
Cain was found not to have contravened any department regulations when he did major favors for murderers in his charge with ties to his business associates. And Norris has been cleared of payroll fraud, although, by his own admission, at times he was paid when not on the job.
The panel that let Cain off the hook comprised three senior Department of Public Safety and Corrections veterans; it was a triumph of esprit de corps over the clear wording of those regulations.
While Cain has decades of penitentiary duty behind him, Norris is no tenderfoot either. He was with State Police for 30 years, retiring as lieutenant colonel about 15 years ago to work at what is known as The Farm. This proved a happy move in both professional and romantic terms, for in 2005, Norris up and wed Cain’s niece, Diann.
Norris’ own niece, Kristen Hooper, also works at Angola with the rank of captain. Her responsibilities included keeping records of the hours Uncle Kenny worked. The family farm may be dying out in America, but Cain was still running one.
Keeping tabs on Norris was no simple task, for he could come and go as he pleased and answered only to Cain, who did not require any documentation of his movements. Norris was sometimes to be found at home in Pitkin, a four-hour drive from the prison, but he claimed he was allowed to work from there. Unfortunately, he failed to get his story straight with Cain, who told investigators Norris was “not allowed to remain at home and be considered at work.”
Shoot, being simultaneously at home and at work was child’s play for Norris. He could be at work even when in the hospital.
That, at any rate, was what the payroll records said. When quizzed, Norris had a ready explanation. It was all his niece’s fault, because she knew he was hospitalized but her record keeping was so sloppy that he was shown as being on the job.
The discrepancy evidently came to light only because Vannoy mentioned Norris’ hospital stay to State Police investigators, who, as one might expect from professional sleuths, asked to see records of it. Norris failed to produce them and instead “verbally provided” the dates. The cops took Norris’ word for it that he had been in the hospital for five days in July when his niece had him performing his duties, whatever they were, as an assistant warden.
The investigation of Norris was launched after The Advocate, having been tipped off that Norris was not earning his salary, put in a public records request. It is not generally recommended for cops to take an alleged fraudster at his word, but on this occasion, an uncorroborated account evidently settled the issue.
But don’t doubt that State Police were dogged in their probe of a former member of their force. Having found out all they could about his actions over the preceding six months, our tireless detectives asked Norris what he had been up to in the six months before that.
He “advised he did not have the information requested,” the police report states, and that about wrapped it up. So Norris was exonerated after what a State Police spokesman declared had been “a thorough investigation.”
For a more objective assessment, let us turn to District Attorney Sam D’Aquilla, who noted that investigators “could’ve followed through on a couple more things” such as, obviously, obtaining Norris’ medical records. Maybe a more thorough job would have revealed enough facts to warrant charges.
But maybe not because building a criminal case would not have been easy given that tracing Norris’ movements, in the absence of an official log, would have been too massive an undertaking for a relatively trivial alleged offense.
Norris is not only an experienced sleuth himself but claims to have built up an internal investigations unit at Angola that is “better than many police departments.” A man with such an eagle eye could hardly have failed to notice that his pay stub showed him working when he wasn’t.
James Gill’s email address is email@example.com.