Our Views: Gov. Edwards dodges responsibility on muffed Burl Cain probe _lowres

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS --Former Angola Warden Burl Cain reads a statement during a press conference in front of the State Capitol Wednesday.

When Burl Cain was warden at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, and dabbling in various outside businesses, he got to know a couple of fat cats with ties to murderers in his custody.

Cain lent a helping hand to both inmates and resigned when his actions came to light, but the resulting internal investigation has cleared him of breaking a Department of Public Safety and Corrections rule against “nonprofessional relationships with offenders or with offenders’ family or friends.”

It was determined that one intervention could not possibly have constituted a violation because it came before Cain started doing business with the stepfather of the favored inmate.

The other intervention could not have constituted a violation because it came after Cain started doing business with a friend of the favored inmate.

Cain’s business dealings could not have been improper anyway, the investigative panel concluded, because the rule applied only to “a secretive personal and/or romantic relationship.” That conclusion required considerable clairvoyant powers, for there is nothing in the wording of the rule to support it.

It did not escape the panel, however, that “an employee could be compromised as a result of a business relationship” and that its narrow interpretation of the rule rendered it largely useless. It therefore recommended that the rule be amended to prohibit future wardens from doing business with inmates or their kin.

So what Cain did was allowable only by reading into the rule a meaning that the panel itself found unacceptable.

This somewhat tortured exoneration hardly came as a shock, for the investigation of Cain’s antics was ordered by his old pal and former business partner, corrections Secretary Jimmy Leblanc. The panel comprised of three of Cain’s fellow department veterans.

Cain is 73 and has spent decades in charge of convicts who will accept Jesus Christ as their savior if they know what is good for them. Nobody needs to tell Cain the difference between right and wrong.

So there was no need to puzzle over the intent of departmental rules; an elementary sense of ethics should have been enough for Cain to keep his correctional and business activities separate.

As a businessman, Cain turned out to lack the golden touch when he came up with a plan 10 years ago to develop a subdivision not far from Angola and paid $2.1 million, almost all of it borrowed, for the land. The country promptly went into recession and the real estate market tanked.

Cain neverthless managed to avoid financial disaster after Charles Chatelain and William Ourso, in separate transactions, bought the land from him and assumed his debts.

Chatelain, whose stepson Jason Lormand was doing life for a double murder, was on the board of Prison Enterprises, which markets the products of inmate labor and was very much Cain’s baby.

Lormand in 2007 was assigned to work at the Governor’s Mansion, which is every Angola inmate’s fondest ambition.

That could not have been a “quid pro pro,” the investigative panel decided, because it was not until 2009 that Chatelain relieved Cain of subdivision liabilities.

However, Chatelain had an obvious reason to feel obliged to Cain, and because ethics laws frown on any “appearance of impropriety,” a more fastidious warden would have looked for investors elsewhere.

He already had found one in his friend Ourso, who liked to hang about the Angola stables, where he befriended inmate Leonard Nicholas. Ourso, persuaded that Nicholas was innocent, enlisted Cain’s aid in getting his conviction overturned.

Cain duly taped an interview with a dying inmate who allowed that he had committed the murder of which Nicholas was found guilty. The deathbed confessor was unable to name the victim, however, and claimed to have strangled him, whereas the coroner blamed “blunt head injury.” When Ourso turned the tape over, a prosecutor denounced it as “a fraud perpetrated on the court,” and Nicholas’s motion for a new trial was denied.

The deathbed interview, however, was jake with the investigative panel, which averred that “any determination” is “moot” because Cain “began his business relationship with Mr. Ourso before Mr. Ourso knew or began advocating for offender Nicholas.”

It is impossible to believe that Ourso did not even know Nicholas when he bought Cain’s land, for the deathbed interview occurred a mere two weeks later.

But, even if what the panel said were true, and the business deal came first, that hardly lets Cain off the hook. According to the logic, the panel employed in the Chatelain deal, it rendered a quid pro quo all the more likely.

Cain declined to be interviewed by the panel, presumably figuring that, with these guys, he had no need to defend himself.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.