He retired under duress, facing two administrative charges of aggravated malfeasance and a criminal probe into possible theft, but former Louisiana prison warden Nate Cain has nonetheless begun receiving a generous monthly public pension.
Though he’s just 49, more than a decade shy of when retirement benefits would normally kick in, Cain was approved for a “disability retirement,” according to officials with the Louisiana State Employees Retirement System, or LASERS.
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That qualifies him for payments of $3,581 a month, or about $43,000 a year — roughly 40 percent of what he was being paid as warden of Avoyelles Correctional Center. The size of Cain’s stipend, funded in part by taxpayers, is based on his 15 years of state employment and his final salary.
Had Cain been terminated, a near-certainty given the findings against him, he would not have been eligible for a disability retirement, officials said. But because he quit first — after getting a doctor’s opinion that he was unfit to keep working — Cain will draw his $43,000 stipend until he dies.
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That won’t change even if he’s found guilty of stealing from the state as warden. Though he hasn’t been booked or charged with such an offense yet, an affidavit in support of a search warrant filed before a June raid on his home indicates such a charge may be coming.
Though lawmakers have frequently proposed bills to deny state pensions to public officials who violate the public trust — an issue that gained further traction when Louisianians learned that former Gov. Edwin Edwards was drawing a $60,000 pension, even as he served a 10-year prison stint for corruption in office — the Legislature has yet to pass such a bill.
There’s no evidence that Nate Cain, the eldest son of legendary Angola prison warden Burl Cain, got any special treatment from the state retirement board.
Under the system’s rules, a doctor authorized by LASERS has to sign off before a disability retirement can be granted, according to Steve Stark, deputy general counsel for the system.
The main criterion, according to the system’s handbook, is that applicants must be “unable to perform their work duties.” They also must have at least 10 years of service to be eligible — a bar Cain also met.
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LASERS officials said they could not provide the name of the doctor who signed off on Nate Cain’s disability, nor could they provide the date Cain applied for disability retirement.
Jill Craft, Nate Cain’s attorney, did not respond to questions posed by The Advocate about what Cain’s disabling medical condition was or whether he had planned to seek a disability retirement before he got into trouble at work.
Previously, she has declined to disclose the nature of Cain’s health issues, citing medical privacy laws, but called them “an ongoing problem in his life.”
State documents show Cain was placed on paid leave March 11, pending an administrative investigation; he resigned May 24.
Before he stepped down, two separate internal investigations found he had committed aggravated malfeasance, an infraction that generally results in termination.
Former Avoyelles Correctional Center warden Nate Cain, who resigned in May amid investigatio…
Separately, two criminal probes were ongoing, one of which ultimately found that Cain’s wife, Tonia, who worked under him at Avoyelles Correctional Center, had likely stolen thousands of dollars from bank accounts belonging to inmates' clubs. No charges have been filed, but the Avoyelles Parish District Attorney’s Office plans to bring the matter before a grand jury in November.
The second probe, still active, targets both Nate and Tonia Cain, accusing the couple in court documents of misusing state-issued credit cards to acquire personal items. No charges have been filed to date.
Lawmakers and others who have been vocal about the need to rein in Louisiana’s state pension systems say cases like Cain’s raise questions about abuse.
“Obviously, when you’ve got someone who was able to work two months ago and now that they’re about to be fired, they can’t — clearly, you have issues,” said Steven Procopio, a former member of the LASERS board who is now policy director at the watchdog Public Affairs Research Council.
But Procopio said it’s nearly impossible to police abuses of the system, mainly because it’s so hard to prove someone does not suffer from pain or some other malady that may be difficult to diagnose.
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State Rep. Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell, who has led efforts to shore up public pension systems, called the Cain situation “aggravating” but, likewise, said there was little that could be done about it.
Procopio said he thinks the LASERS board does a good job, but it's a difficult task.
Data provided to The Advocate by the LASERS system show that just 2 percent of the system’s roughly 42,000 pensioners received a disability retirement. At the Department of Corrections, the rate of disability is slightly higher — 3 percent — but that pales next to disability retirement rates in some other public systems, such as the one for New Orleans firefighters. Each system has its own rules for how disability should be granted.
“Disability, in general, is kind of tough,” Procopio said. “I really wish there was a solution. If someone said, ‘Look, Arkansas figured out how to do this’ — well, we could follow Arkansas. But I don’t think anyone has. And it’s really hard to address without hurting innocent people.”
State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, who, like Pearson, has pushed for pension reform, said he thinks a worthy initial goal would be to deny pensions to state employees who are convicted of corruption.
“I would be supportive of any attempt to (a) take away the right of someone to run for office and (b) take away pension benefits, within the constitution, for anyone who violates the public trust,” Appel said. “My view is you should not be paid by the citizens if you violated their trust.”