Fall of Burl Cain: How 1 last side deal led to Angola warden's undoing

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Editor's note: Some of the links in this story reference archived content about Burl Cain authored by The Advocate.

When a private firm went to Warden Burl Cain in 1992 with a proposal to build a recycling plant in his prison and use inmate labor to staff it, Cain did everything he could to help.

He also cut a side deal with the company, called Controlled Recycling Equipment Inc., which would have paid him a 5 percent commission for every new plant he lined up. That contract was in apparent violation of state ethics rules, which bar state employees from inking personal deals with the companies they hire.

Cain’s relationship with Controlled Recycling was never meant to become public. But after the planned facility at Dixon Correctional Institute fell apart, Cain and a partner sued the company in federal court, claiming they had been hoodwinked into investing $58,000 into the firm.

Such dubious entanglements — which would occur again and again in different forms over a decades-long career — form the underbelly of the Burl Cain era, which came to an abrupt end this week when the longtime warden of Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola announced his retirement.

While running the largest prison in the state with America’s highest incarceration rate, Cain achieved a renown that few other jailers ever do. He played a leading role in “The Farm,” a well-received documentary about Angola, and became a sought-after speaker all over the world, wowing audiences with a folksy mix of law-and-order toughness and a belief in the power of inmate rehabilitation through Christ.

But there’s another side to the country’s best-known jailer, one neatly encapsulated by the recycling episode. Time and time again, the 73-year-old Cain — who came of age in the freewheeling era of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and is exiting the public stage as a new Gov. Edwards prepares to take office — has been singed by scandals involving his side business deals, most of which have been intertwined with his public position and many of which have depended on inmate labor.

In the end, it was a side deal that undid him. After investing more than $2 million into a real-estate venture in West Feliciana Parish, Cain took on relatives and friends of inmates as partners, in apparent violation of corrections rules.

Cain declined numerous requests for an interview for this story, though he asked that The Advocate send him questions in writing. He told WAFB-TV, which broke the news of his sudden retirement, that the questions convinced him it was time to leave.

He’s the boss

Cain’s departure will leave a power vacuum at the Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

Friends and enemies alike often compare Cain to Boss Hogg, the portly and avaricious power broker who controlled the fictional Georgia county in TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

For years, many close observers have said Cain was really in charge of the corrections department, even if he wasn’t the top man on the organizational chart.

That title, corrections secretary, falls to James LeBlanc, a close friend and former subordinate of Cain’s who has also been in at least two business partnerships with him. Though LeBlanc is Cain’s boss, Cain’s $167,211 salary exceeds that of LeBlanc by $30,000.

Acknowledging their relationship, LeBlanc recently recused himself from a internal inquiry into Cain’s real-estate dealings that was prompted by reports in The Advocate. A corrections spokeswoman said LeBlanc wanted to avoid questions of favoritism, noting that “his impartiality would more than likely be called into question by The Advocate, its sources and perhaps others.”

With LeBlanc as the corrections department’s putative head, Cain’s children have been steadily promoted within the department’s hierarchy without raising any questions of nepotism.

The retiring warden’s eldest son, Nate, is now the warden of Avoyelles Correctional Center, where he earns about $109,000. Meanwhile, son-in-law Seth Smith was recently appointed “confidential assistant” for the department, a post that pays $150,000. Cain’s younger son, Marshall, is a manager at Prison Enterprises, the corrections arm that buys products the system needs and sells things that inmates produce, where he earns $63,481.

Pam Laborde, a corrections spokeswoman, told The Advocate that Smith and Cain’s sons were promoted based on their abilities and qualifications, not because of who they are.

“Secretary LeBlanc has worked in corrections for over 40 years,” she said. “He has many colleagues he considers friends. He can’t step aside in every decision, nor is he required to do so. The Advocate should stop trying to create conflict where none exists.”

Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards is expected to name his top appointees before he’s sworn in Jan. 11; His spokesman, Richard Carbo, said no decision has been made on a corrections secretary.

Cain, who flirted with a run for governor himself earlier this year, made clear in an August interview whom he’d choose. “If any governor is smart, he’ll reappoint Secretary LeBlanc,” Cain said. “Otherwise, it’ll show he’s an idiot.”

Solidifying his power

Cain began to amass power in the early 1990s through a confluence of events.

In 1990, he won a high-profile campaign to become the employee representative on the state Civil Service Commission, which manages personnel issues for tens of thousands of state workers. He would serve in the position for two decades.

The next year, Cain’s brother, state Rep. James David Cain, of Dry Creek, was promoted to the state Senate. Also that year, Cain helped start an organization called Louisiana Association of Wardens and Superintendents, a confederation of corrections brass.

The group’s main purpose was to lobby the governor on who would oversee corrections. Cain was the group’s head, and he took Gov. Edwin Edwards — newly sworn in for his fourth term — to Ruth’s Chris for the sole purpose of installing Richard Stalder, then warden of Wade Correctional Center, as corrections secretary. Stalder had been one of Cain’s deputies.

It worked. Stalder was appointed by Edwards in 1992; he, in turn, named Cain warden of Angola in 1995. Cain’s tenure marked an new era of censorship for The Angolite, the acclaimed prison magazine, its former editor Wilbert Rideau wrote in his 2010 memoir “In the Place of Justice.”

“Cain was like a king, a sole ruler … He enjoyed being a dictator and regarded himself as a benevolent one,” wrote Rideau, a convicted killer who won his freedom after four decades at Angola.

Past its prime

While at Dixon, Cain began demonstrating off the entrepreneurial streak that would repeatedly land him in hot water.

After the recycling plant at Dixon fell through, Cain found another suitor. A company called Crawfish Unlimited Inc. put inmates to work de-boning chicken thighs at the prison.

The idea was for prisoners to gain skills and for the state to make some money. But Louisiana’s legislative auditor questioned the deal.

The state received only about 37 cents per man-hour, meaning the state hardly realized a profit. To boot, one of Crawfish Unlimited’s principals was David Miller, who had political connections to the governor’s office, raising questions of cronyism.

When Cain took over at Angola, in 1995, he wasted no time starting up a fresh enterprise.

Cain secured a deal with a private company to have inmates scrape rust and old labels off expired canned goods and replace them with new ones, allowing the products to be sold in places like Russia and Latin America with more lax food regulations.

The arrangement with Louisiana Agri-Can Co. came under scrutiny after inmate William Kissinger wrote the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that the plant “stinks of impropriety” and was “shrouded in secrecy.” Kissinger, an inmate legal advisor, was quickly demoted to farm work, a transfer Cain admitted in federal court was retribution.

Cain, annoyed, brushed off criticism about the plant at the time.

“This is probably my last hurrah with private industry because you end up accused of being a crook,” he said.

The owners of Louisiana Agri-Can included some of the same people behind the chicken plant. The politically connected Miller also helped set the can-relabeling deal up.

Under fire from a federal judge, the can plant was quickly shut down. Two years later, one owner pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor federal charge of mislabeling a food product.

Cain would later form a company in Texas with Miller. On personal disclosure forms, Cain described Chatawa Management International as a “welding fabrication” company. His 2009 form indicates that he sold his share that year.

Miller, in a recent interview with The Advocate, said Chatawa reconditioned and repainted used shipping containers.

“It wasn’t a high-tech thing; we were just grinding rust off and painting over it,” he said. “It was one of those deals that didn’t make any money, and we closed it down.”

Foul-tasting soy product

The can relabeling wasn’t the corrections department’s only controversial foray into suspect food products.

In late 1995, Louisiana prison officials bought 20 tons of a soy-based meat substitute called VitaPro to stock prison kitchens statewide. The purchase came after a taste test at Angola set up by VitaPro’s owner, Yank Barry, and the company’s controversial lobbyist, Patrick Graham — who was part of a team planning to build a private prison for juveniles in Jena. Louisiana inmates said VitaPro was awful, but Cain defended it. “I beg to differ. The chicken salad was good; the burger was not so good,” Cain told The Advocate that year.

LeBlanc, then acting warden of Dixon, concurred. He pronounced the product “not really that bad,” despite “an aftertaste.”

It was good enough that Louisiana prison officials wanted to buy more. They put out a request for bids for a chicken-flavored, soy-based meat substitute, planning to buy nearly 500 tons of the stuff.

But when the bids came in, VitaPro — which offered a price of nearly $4 per pound — had been undercut by about one-third by a Lake Charles-based firm, Lumen Foods.

Just like that, Louisiana corrections officials seemed to lose interest in the meat substitute. On Feb. 1, 1996, they canceled the bid.

Greg Caton, who ran Lumen Foods and now lives in Ecuador, is still angry. He’s convinced the fix was in, starting with the way the bid was drawn up.

“The idea was to protect the deal with great specificity,” Caton told The Advocate in a recent interview. “If there’s great specificity, the more you narrow the playing field of prospective vendors. But they didn’t see us coming.”

VitaPro’s bid was “ridiculously overpriced,” Caton said. “It doesn’t get any more corrupt. … And I live in Latin America.”

Cain shrugged off any suggestion that he had a hand in the soy purchase. “VitaPro wasn’t my deal,” he told The Advocate at the time.

Barry, the company’s owner, was later indicted on federal charges that he bribed Andy Collins, the head of the Texas prison system. Collins had quit his job in Texas to work for VitaPro just as the Texas prison system bought an enormous quantity of its product.

Both Collins and Barry were found guilty by a jury, but their convictions were later tossed by a federal judge.

God of the shakedown?

Cain might have hoped his charm would win over Daniel Bergner, who enjoyed an unusual level of access with Angola inmates as he researched his 1998 book, “God of the Rodeo.”

Cain played up his image as a tough but merciful warden, Bergner wrote. He seemed to think Bergner could further burnish his legend.

But after Bergner had invested months of work, Cain wanted to trade on the access he’d given the journalist. He asked for $50,000 of Bergner’s $60,000 advance. Cain explained the money was for a horse barn for his wife.

Perplexed, Bergner dug up old clips in The Advocate and The Boston Globe and read about Cain’s questionable deals. He admitted to an awakening.

“When he asked for money, I wasn’t shocked,” he wrote. “I only stared, thinking, ‘So it’s true.’”

Cain, by then “a brazen extortionist” in Bergner’s eyes, kicked the writer out of Angola after he rejected the warden’s demands. Bergner settled a federal suit against the warden in 1997 that restored his access to the prison. In the book, the author portrays himself as a naïf who came under the charismatic warden’s spell, and then got wise.

“How could I have deceived myself for so long, diminished so thoroughly what now seemed Cain’s primary interest in running prisons?” he asks.

Feds at the door

By the time Bergner registered his suspicions about Cain, the federal indictments of men close to the warden who were tied to Angola’s exchange with free enterprise were still years off.

One of the men charged, Gene Fletcher, had been selling fertilizer and other commodities to the Louisiana correctional system for decades. His close friendship to Cain was well-known, and suspicions about him had swirled for years.

In the early 1990s, John Whitley, then the warden of Angola, learned that his workers had quit weighing Fletcher’s trucks when they took delivery of fertilizer. As a result, the prison had no way of knowing whether it was getting what it paid for.

A Cain ally at Prison Enterprises told Whitley that not weighing the fertilizer was actually saving state taxpayers money. The explanation made no sense to Whitley. But at the time, he had no reason to doubt it.

Marty Lensing, then warden of Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, told The Advocate a similar tale. Hearing rumors of a scam, Lensing ordered his subordinates to start weighing Fletcher’s trucks.

An angry Fletcher soon showed up in Lensing’s office. He told Lensing that his trucks were insured by the father-in-law of Stalder, then corrections secretary — a veiled threat Lensing said he found both “nervy” and “comical.”

Stalder said in a phone interview Wednesday that his father-in-law had a very successful commercial insurance practice and that it’s certainly possible he wrote policies for Fletcher. But he said he never heard that Fletcher had invoked Stalder’s name in such a way, and he never would have condoned it had he known.

The strange arguments over weighing trucks would all make sense to Lensing and Whitley in 2010, when Fletcher admitted in federal court that for years, he had “routinely” ripped the state off by delivering less product than the state had purchased. The same investigation led to a guilty plea from Prison Enterprises Director Jim Leslie, who described the Fletcher contract in a wiretapped conversation as a “honey hole.”

Both Leslie and Fletcher were sentenced to six months in prison, and both died not long after their convictions. Cain, meanwhile, was never charged with abetting the scheme, even though he was the FBI’s real target, according to Fletcher’s lawyer, Maurice Tynes — who, as it happens, represented Cain in his civil dispute in the 1990s over the recycling contract.

“Gene was never was able to tell (the FBI) anything that was new to them or earth-shaking to them,” Tynes said. “It was always side stuff, with Burl Cain keeping his distance.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Dec. 14 to correct the state in which the fictional Hazzard County was located.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.

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