Burl Cain's son kept superiors in the dark as more than $76K was spent on unchecked construction _lowres

Photo provided -- Ranch House at Avoyelles

Around this time last year, a large yellow house started to take shape on the grounds of Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport.

The building was unusual in a few ways: For starters, it wasn’t totally clear what its purpose was, though it was rumored to be a residence for Warden Nate Cain. No architect took credit for the plans. And prison officials had not sought bids for the construction, even though it was going to cost far in excess of the $5,000 threshold that triggers a state law requiring bids.

In any case, the building never was finished, though more than $76,000 has been spent on it so far.

On Tuesday, corrections officials acknowledged the project skirted various department rules and state laws, and they say that’s why they shut it down late last year.

The half-built, nearly 4,000-square-foot house is one of perhaps a half-dozen areas of the Cottonport lockup that has more recently drawn the attention of investigators — and led officials to put several top prison officials on leave, including Cain and his wife, Tonia, who was the facility’s business manager.

Nate Cain is the eldest son of Burl Cain, the former longtime warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola who also happens to be close friends with his son’s boss, corrections department head Jimmy LeBlanc. Burl Cain stepped down Jan. 1 amid controversy over his business dealings.

Investigators with state Inspector General Stephen Street’s office are probing a number of other areas, ranging from the possible abuse of credit cards billed to the agency to improper handling of investigations into rape claims by inmates.

In an unrelated development, a key legislative committee voted on Monday to strip funding from the inspector general’s office, a move that, if carried out, would spell the end of those investigations once the new fiscal year begins July 1, Street said Tuesday.

Tonia and Nate Cain are on paid leave while the various investigations are pending, according to Pam Laborde, a corrections spokeswoman. While The Advocate for more than two months has been requesting permission to visit the prison, Laborde said Tuesday that the newspaper would not be allowed to visit until the investigations are complete.

The Advocate began seeking records related to the homebuilding project in February, and received some of them last month. However, state corrections officials have yet to provide some of the requested records, such as documents showing what the rationale was for building the property.

It could be because such documents don’t exist. Laborde said by email that Avoyelles prison officials did not seek approval to build the structure before commencing. Once officials at headquarters became aware of the unauthorized construction, sometime late in 2015, she said, the project was shut down. It’s not clear why it took months for higher-ups to notice the large building, which stands near the prison’s front gate.

Initial invoices for materials related to the yellow house referred to it as the “Ranch House” — suggesting, perhaps, it was meant to serve a similar purpose to the well-known house of the same name on the grounds of Angola where guests and VIPs eat and are entertained. It also bears a resemblance to a house at the former Phelps Correctional Center, where Nate Cain was a deputy warden before moving to Avoyelles.

Plans for the building appear to be drawn by an amateur who did not sign his work — even though the state Department of Public Safety and Corrections has the Baton Rouge firm GraceHebert Architects on retainer for $60,000 a year.

And though construction projects that cost north of $5,000 usually require public bids, with the work going to the lowest bidder, none of that happened this job.

Instead, Nate Cain and his subordinates simply used credit cards billed to state taxpayers to order materials on a piecemeal basis. Over the course of three months, starting in late May, records show, they spent more than $76,000 on materials ranging from concrete to lumber to insulation.

None of the roughly 50 purchases exceeded $5,000, the threshold that triggers a requirement to seek bids.

Between May and August of 2015, the project’s name evolved, the records show.

For the first six weeks or so, it was variously referred to as the “Ranch House” or the “house project.” But beginning in about mid-July, the invoices begin referring to it as the “S.O.C.C.,” which is never actually spelled out in the documents but which Laborde has said stands for “Special Operations Command Center.”

The last invoice related to the project, according to records provided by the corrections department in response to a request from The Advocate, is dated Aug. 14, 2015. That invoice was for $3,371 worth of siding, purchased from Druco Lumber in Mansura.

Laborde did not say how corrections officials became aware that an unauthorized house was being built on the prison grounds. But she emphasized that proper protocols were not followed.

“Had the project gone through the proper process and received approval, it would have required formal architectural plans to be submitted for state fire marshal and health department approval,” she said.

“The project would also have been subjected to a public bid process, assuming appropriate funding was available.”

It was not clear Tuesday why so much time elapsed between when the corrections department learned of the unauthorized building and when Nate Cain was put on leave.

Laborde said department officials would not make any further comments about the building while the matter is under investigation.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.