JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Fifteen minutes into Tuesday’s committee confirmation hearing for Burl Cain, the former warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary whose exit came amid three state investigations, a Mississippi senator asserted that information he had been given on those allegations proved to him that Cain had been “exonerated.”
Cain, tapped by Gov. Tate Reeves to lead Mississippi’s corrections system, agreed with the statement from State Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Jackson County, saying he was indeed exonerated in the cases which revealed misspending of taxpayer dollars and business relationships with alleged ties to inmates Cain himself supervised.
“What does that mean that proves he was exonerated? What would exonerate him? There were no formal criminal charges against him,” said Louisiana Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera, whose 2017 investigative audit detailed four separate possible violations of state law and misuse of taxpayer dollars directly tied to Cain. “I would say that it was also never proved that my report I issued was incorrect, either. We still stand by the report and the factual data we put in the report.”
Wiggins said a PEER report provided to him and other members of the Senate Corrections Committee satisfied his and other lawmakers’ concerns, though he would not speak to specifics.
“I can’t comment on what was directly in the PEER report,” Wiggins said. “I would say that a lot of what was reported in the media was a media storm based on what we have. There were things that were reported that were, yes, addressed to satisfy us.”
Wiggins and the other members voted unanimously to confirm Cain to his new role, which pays $132,000 a year.
The confirmation now moves to the full Senate, which could vote on Cain’s future in the coming days.
Cain said during the hearing that he didn’t want the job for the money, though; he told the senators Tuesday he wants to be able to rehabilitate not only the inmate experience but the inmates themselves, helping them realize that they can build each other up and grow spiritually.
“To have someone to come in that’s not really concerned about the money, not really concerned about the political backlash that he or she may receive from doing things in a manner in which others may not like, I think that’s what’s needed," said State Sen. Juan Barnett, who chairs the corrections committee. "[We need] someone with some direction and someone who’s not afraid to make those tough changes.”
Barnett said he was particularly impressed with Cain’s future plans because, for the last five years, Barnett has tried to champion corrections strategies in the Legislature, with limited success.
“We need to change the atmosphere. We need to change how we look at it, and how do we do that, go from the Department of Corrections to a Department of Rehabilitation? To hear someone else say what I’ve been saying and want to do that, you can’t help but get a good feeling from it,” Barnett said.
Wiggins believes there will still be a great deal of scrutiny on Cain during his tenure, not just because of what transpired in Louisiana, but also how MDOC has struggled with its own financial improprieties and violence behind bars.
“You and the media and all of us are correct to be concerned, and I certainly was when those things were first reported. If we weren’t doing our job, we wouldn’t be concerned," Wiggins said. “His knowledge and the things that he’s done within the system is different, at least while I’ve been here from the previous commissioners.”
Before the vote, three senators asked questions regarding the allegations in Louisiana.
Cain dodged the first one, but told senators the other times that the allegations were “unfounded” and that he would make sure to avoid any hint of impropriety.
“There was nothing that found him guilty of the charges that was alleged after him. And so I think that made the committee feel good," Barnett said.
Purpera said criminal charges didn’t come in those Louisiana cases because no district attorney thought it rose to the level that they would want to file charges and go through the costs and expenses associated with a trial.
In Mississippi, public officials accused of misappropriating or misspending tax dollars don’t always end up with criminal charges either.
The highly-publicized investigation into the town of Pelahatchie’s finances, for example, show multiple elected officials accused of transferring funds from the town’s drug seizure fund to other areas, yet none of those mentioned has been charged criminally in the matter.
Instead, State Auditor Shad White’s office issued demand letters against former mayor Knox Ross Jr., current mayor Ryshonda Beechem and several current and former aldermen.
Purpera said his office doesn’t have the power to issue demands because Louisiana statute doesn’t allow it.
He did, however, wish Cain the best.
“I think you’re gonna find that he’s gonna do a very good job of running the prison systems. That’s his history. He did that here for many, many years, and did a fine job of running the prison system,” Purpera said. “We looked at those issues that were reported in that report and we still stand by it."
“We believe that during his tenure, those things did happen, they happened under his watch, and in some cases happened because of his actions, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is well known for doing a great job of running the prison system, and my hope would be he does the same for the state of Mississippi," Purpera added.
Barnett said he felt confident Cain reassured the members of the committee that he could do his job and follow the law at the same time, noting the new MDOC commissioner will be watched closely and he has confidence that State Auditor Shad White “will do his job to make sure none of those things happen."
White said his investigators are constantly looking across the state to make sure fraud is not being committed.
“We know the challenges that MDOC has had over the past couple of years, and so we know it’s going to be even more important to that agency to make sure that money’s going to be spent the right way,” White said. “We’re going to be watching everything closely.”