Former warden at the Avoyelles Correctional Center, Nate Cain, walks into the federal court house in Alexandria Monday afternoon, where he faces federal wire fraud charges for using prison funds for personal purchases.

ALEXANDRIA — Former Cottonport prison warden Nate Cain abruptly entered a guilty plea Wednesday afternoon on the third day of his federal trial on corruption charges, cutting the proceedings short as his ex-wife prepared take the stand to testify against him. 

Cain pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud related to gun purchases he made on the state's dime while serving as warden of Avoyelles Correctional Center, now Raymond Laborde Correctional Center. 

David Joseph, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, said he expects Cain, 51, to serve time in federal prison and pay restitution for the crimes. 

“We weren’t giving him anything,” Joseph said. "He’ll pay for it. I can’t tell you what the judge will sentence him to, but I can tell you prison time will be recommended under the guidelines.”

The deal marked a sudden end to a trial in which Cain had faced 17 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The former warden, who resigned in 2016, took the plea before the jury heard from his ex-wife, Tonia Bandy, and corrections secretary Jimmy LeBlanc, both of whom were scheduled to testify. Bandy had already pleaded guilty in the case.

Cain and Bandy were accused of spending thousands of dollars meant for the Cottonport prison's operations on a slew of personal purchases — from flat screen TVs and Yeti coolers to toilet paper and coffee, as well as construction supplies to quietly build a new home on prison property — while shielding the fraudulent transactions from any state oversight.

The counts to which Cain pleaded guilty Wednesday pertained only to certain purchases of gun and gun accessories, which amounted to less than $1,000, according to Cain's attorney, John McLindon. Cain admitted to those limited purchases, and apologized to taxpayers. 

"The government treated me very fairly and I take responsibility for the two counts I pled to," Cain said Wednesday after his plea deal. "I'm very thankful and happy for what happened.” 

McLindon said Cain plans to reimburse the state for the purchases he admitted were fraudulent, but does not think Cain should pay much more. 

“The remaining money — Nate’s not responsible for that," McLindon said. 

But federal prosecutors argue that Cain should be on the hook to pay back as much as $150,000 -- the total value of the purchases they alleged were fraudulent -- because federal sentencing guidelines allow judges to consider all the relevant conduct.

"Even though he’s only pled to two counts, it wouldn’t be uncommon for the judge to consider the entire scheme," said Dane Ciolino, a professor at Loyola Law School. “The odds are the judge is going to use the larger number; that’s what usually happens.”

Ciolino said that amount the judge decides on will be a key factor in Cain's sentence. Ciolino noted the guidelines will add time because Cain stole from the public, but Cain's decision to take a plea will weigh in his favor.

He declined to estimate how much time Cain will serve in the end. 

"He will get the benefit of a reduction because he’s pleading guilty and accepting responsibility," Ciolino said. "He would have gotten more (of a reduction) had he done it well in advance of trial."

Cain's sentencing was set for June 17, and he will remain free on bail until that date. Bandy's sentencing is set for April 12. 

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Cain pleaded guilty after three days of testimony. The jury heard damaging accounts from several former employees who said Cain and Bandy completely changed the culture of spending at the prison, frequently violating Department of Corrections rules to buy personal items with state credit cards. They said he made them feel their jobs were at risk if they did not go along with the scheme. 

Before Cain's plea, the jury heard testimony from Mark Monroe, who worked in the prison’s business office. Monroe said he first became concerned by Cain’s leadership when Cain berated him for talking to friends about his work at the prison, including how he makes purchases.

Monroe said Cain told him that “loose lips sink ships,” while poking him repeatedly in his chest in a threatening way. He also testified that when prison officials realized they were under investigation, Cain called Monroe into his office and told him to change the name on the DirecTV account at the warden’s house from Cain's name to the Avoyelles Correctional Center – because the state had been paying for it.

Another former employee, Thomas Heptinstall, then a lieutenant colonel under Cain, said he found out through the investigation that a wedding present Cain had given him – a $80 pressure cooker – had been bought with state funds. He said he returned it to the state when he learned of its origin. 

Cain is the eldest son of storied Louisiana jailer Burl Cain, who himself was forced to step down from his longtime perch as warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in late 2015 amid revelations that he had significant business dealings with the stepfather of an inmate under his supervision. 

The younger Cain resigned months later, amid investigations into his questionable purchases and other alleged misconduct at his prison, citing his health. Bandy, then still his wife, resigned at the same time, saying she was going to care for her husband, who she said suffered from a medical condition. The two divorced shortly afterward.

Both Cains left during a time of intense scrutiny into nepotism and self-dealing at the Department of Corrections. Though the scrutiny prompted several critical probes and audits, and led to some departures, Nate Cain and several underlings, including Bandy, were the only correctional employees to face criminal charges as a result.

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Gov. John Bel Edwards retained LeBlanc, who had been named corrections secretary by Gov. Bobby Jindal, despite the scandals, saying he has full confidence in him. 

Joseph acknowledged there have been other instances of misconduct at other state prisons, but in this case investigators and prosecutors were able to get concrete evidence of corruption. 

"A lot of our prisons in Louisiana are in remote places, so the warden kind of has the run of the mill," Joseph said. "We’ve seen, I think, that in several cases in Louisiana. In this case we were able to pinpoint expenses that were being charged to taxpayers that were for personal use.”

Nate Cain said he had not been in contact with his father during, or after, the trial, though Kenny Norris, a relative who figured in the 2015-16 prison scandals, did attend the trial. Norris said Burl Cain was traveling with his prison consulting work.  

Louisiana Inspector General Stephen Street, whose office led the investigation into Nate Cain along with the FBI, called the manner in which the former warden operated a "staggering sense of entitlement."

“Justice was done today,” Street said. “He abused his power as warden and he’s now going to be held accountable for that.”

But justice in two other cases involving Cain and Bandy remain on hold in the Avoyelles Parish District court, as officials there waited for the federal case to play out. Cain was indicted in February 2018 on obstruction of justice, stemming from a 2016 investigation by state corrections officials that found the former warden undermined a probe into a rape allegation at his Cottonport prison. The allegations involved a sexual relationship between an inmate and a corrections officer at the lockup, which is considered rape under federal law, even when both parties consent.

A year prior in January 2017, Bandy was charged with theft of $25,000 or more, malfeasance and injuring public records in the state court following a legislative auditors report  that found Bandy was to blame for $30,000 of missing state funds, which were supposed to benefit five clubs to help rehabilitate inmates. 

Follow Grace Toohey on Twitter, @grace_2e.