Controversy Surrounds Angola Prison Warden’s Retirement, Indictment of Family Members
by David M. Reutter
One month after a November 2015 investigative report by the New Orleans Advocate, Louisiana State Penitentiary warden Burl Cain, 73, announced his retirement. He stepped down from his longtime position at the Angola prison effective January 1, 2016.
The report outlined a series of private real estate deals that Cain had entered into with relatives and friends of favored prisoners, in apparent violation of prison system rules. Cain had a business relationship with Charles Chatelain, the stepfather of Angola prisoner Jason Lormand; he also had a real estate partnership with William Ourso, a close friend of prisoner Leonard Nicholas.
Investigations by the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LDPSC), the State Police and the Inspector General’s Office ensued. According to LDPSC Undersecretary Thomas Bickham, Cain’s business relationships did not violate departmental policy because rules barring “non-professional relationships with offenders or offenders’ family and friends” do not actually mean what they say.
“The longstanding consensus in the department of this rule,” Bickham wrote, “is that it is intended to prohibit an employee from entering into a secretive personal and/or romantic relationship with an offender or a member of that offender’s family.”
While he recommended that the policy be amended to clarify that outside relationships could create a potential conflict, he said the rule applies only to prisoners directly under an LDPSC employee’s supervision – meaning it would not apply to high-ranking officials like Cain.
The LDPSC also found the former warden did not violate policy by recording a confession that purportedly absolved Nicholas of the murder he was convicted of committing. As to that issue, Bickham wrote that Cain “should have used better judgment and left the security of the confession up to other criminal justice professionals.”
Further, Cain was accused of using prison employees for personal projects, but the employees told investigators they were compensated for the labor they performed and did not work on the state’s time. Two other employees, however, said they worked at one of Cain’s homes on their own time and were not compensated; they told the Advocate they did the work because they felt obligated to do so when their boss requested it. Neither of those employees was interviewed by prison investigators.
The Louisiana Inspector General and State Police also concluded their investigations by finding Cain had violated no criminal laws, essentially clearing him of wrongdoing.
“It cost me my job, it cost me a lot of money, it cost me a lot of chaos for my family … and it cost me my reputation,” Cain said of the investigations.
Cain served as warden of the Dixon Correctional Institute from 1981 to 1995 before transferring to Angola. Prior to that he was assistant secretary of the Office of Agribusiness, a precursor to Prison Enterprises, Louisiana’s prison industry program.
The LDPSC probed further into Cain’s family members after the Advocate filed a public records request. Cain’s eldest son, Nate, was suspended from his post as warden at the Avoyelles Correctional Center. Also placed on leave was Tonia Cain, Nate’s wife, who was the prison’s business manager, as well as deputy warden Paul Gaspard and two other prison staff, Lt. Col. Beau Milligan and Major Randon Harrington.
The Advocate said the probe was conducted after it requested credit card receipts, ledgers showing money taken in by prison concessions and invoices for a new prison building.
Meanwhile, Burl Cain exercised his full rights as a veteran LDPSC employee. He had previously taken advantage of a law that allowed him to retire and then be rehired by the state, which let him collect about $800,000 in pension benefits.
After announcing his retirement, Cain asked his “very best friend” and business partner James M. Le Blanc, who serves as LDPSC’s Secretary, to let him collect his salary for a period of time equal to his unused leave – a practice known as “burning leave.”
Cain had almost 3,000 hours of unused annual leave; he had a similar amount of sick leave time, but that could not be cashed out. Le Blanc signed off on allowing Cain to draw a paycheck until August 2016, which amounted to eight months of pay totaling about $134,000. At the time of his retirement, Cain was Louisiana’s highest paid civil servant. State officials later moved to curtail the practice of “burning leave,” but did not apply it retroactively to the former warden.
Cain was also allowed to continue living in the warden’s house at the Angola prison while on leave. The house had been built by Cain 10 years ago using state funds and prisoner labor.
Cain’s tenure as warden was marred by controversy over his numerous – often botched – deals with private companies, many of which used or sought to use prisoner labor, as well as abuses and corruption at Angola. Though he’s been the target of several federal corruption investigations, including one into his real estate dealings, he was never charged.
“I wouldn’t be that smart to keep getting away with it all this time, everything I get accused of,” he said of the controversies that have dogged him for years.
Meanwhile, Nate Cain, Tonia Cain and Paul Gaspard all retired in May 2016. Nate was accused of ordering the cover-up of a rape investigation at the Avoyelles Correctional Center in 2015, according to an LDPSC investigative report. He also showed “inappropriate favoritism” towards a female guard, Lt. Brandy Dupuy, who allegedly had illicit sex with a prisoner. Milligan and Harrington were fired in June 2016 in connection with the cover-up.
In August 2017, Nate and Tonia Cain were indicted on federal conspiracy and fraud charges; they are accused of using a state credit card for around $152,000 in personal purchases while employed by the LDPSC. Some of the items they bought were used to build a house on prison grounds without proper authorization and without seeking competitive bids. The purchases were reportedly made at a Tractor Supply store, Walmarts, tire stores and a furniture store, among others. Tonia Cain also faces state charges of theft and malfeasance in office in connection with $31,000 in missing funds from prison concession sales.
Because Nate Cain retired from the LDPSC before he could be disciplined as a result of the rape investigation cover-up, he was allowed to keep his $43,000 annual pension – which he will continue to receive even if convicted.
Sources: The Advocate, www.nola.com, www.bpnews.net