In a post last week about how Gov. John Bel Edwards is apt to sling mud at Republican critics in elected office, we noted a letter Edwards sent to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) apologizing for what he said were mischaracterizations of the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act, the criminal justice reform package passed on a bipartisan basis last year and currently being implemented by Edwards’ administration, by Sen. John Kennedy.
Here was the letter, for those of our readers who didn’t see it…
As we noted, that letter was a pretty good example of gaslighting, and Kennedy can’t really complain too loudly that Edwards is doing it since it’s something Kennedy has been doing to Edwards since the latter ran around the state threatening to kill college football unless he got a tax increase in 2016. Back then Kennedy did some expert-level work on Edwards, apologizing to the people of Louisiana for their governor trying to scare them with horror stories of budget cuts.
So Edwards was lying in wait for an opportunity to return the favor, and his letter to Grassley was just that.
Except you don’t gaslight the gaslighter without there being consequences. And today was Kennedy’s turn. Here’s his letter to Grassley in response to Edwards, and he’s not exactly subtle with it…
February 19, 2018
The Honorable Chuck Grassley
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
224 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C., 20510
Dear Chairman Grassley:
I write to provide you more detail about my concern, and the concern of many law-abiding Louisiana citizens, with Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards’ Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act. The Act is inappropriately named, in my opinion. It should be called the Louisiana Prisoner Release and Public Safety Be Damned Act. It has been an unqualified disaster.
Governor Edwards and I have a fundamental disagreement over Louisiana’s public safety needs. He believes Louisiana has too many people in prison. I believe we have too many people committing crimes. He believes that many of our inmates are simply misunderstood. I believe that people must be responsible for their actions, including their crimes. He sees our prison system primarily through the eyes of our prisoners. I see it primarily through the eyes of those prisoners’ victims.
Governor Edwards’ prisoner release program charges the Louisiana Department of Corrections and Public Safety (Corrections Department) with the responsibility of deciding which inmates are released. Louisiana had approximately 35,000 state prisoners in October 2017. The Corrections Department is reviewing 16,000 prisoners for release. It has already released 2,000. At least 76 have been re-arrested. For example, Tyrone White, a 24-year-old inmate who had been arrested more than 60 times, was released and promptly robbed two roofers at gunpoint. The police tracked him down after residents saw him pulling on car door handles in Kenner. In north Louisiana, a Winn Parish man was out of prison for a week before he was re-arrested. His own mother turned him in. He had been in and out of jail 10 times since he was 18 years old. One sheriff basically called the prisoner release program a joke. No wonder the people of Louisiana are afraid.
I take no pleasure in telling you that a big part of the problem with Governor Edwards’ prison release program is that the leadership of his Corrections Department has a demonstrated record of incompetence, and worse. This has been widely reported by Louisiana media. While there are many capable, rank-and-file public servants working in the agency, numerous of Governor Edwards’ senior Corrections Department officials have been indicted or forced to retire, and others are being investigated by the FBI and other law enforcement agents.
Consider the following:
- Longtime Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola warden Burl Cain resigned in 2016 amid a cloud of controversy. Mr. Cain hired a company to build a recycling plant at Dixon Correctional Institute for the state and then signed a personal contract to broker similar deals for the company. Mr. Cain also is accused of going into business with the family and friends of prison inmates. The Corrections Department later decided that arrangement was fine – partly because it wasn’t sexual – but said it might forbid similar arrangements in the future. An audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office found that Mr. Cain’s family stayed for free and ate for free in homes owned by the state.
- Mr. Burl Cain’s son, former Avoyelles Correctional Center warden Nate Cain, was indicted in 2017 on 18 fraud charges for inappropriately charging $152,000 to a state credit card. He also faces an obstruction of justice charge. According to an arrest warrant, Nate Cain and his wife, Tonia, also a prison Corrections Department employee, ordered prison employees to buy things for their personal use with state credit cards. Investigators later seized a camera, Bose headphones, TVs, clothing and an airsoft gun wrapped as a Christmas gift from their home. The state also spent nearly $80,000 building an almost 4,000-square-foot home for the Cains before construction halted amid questions about why state bid laws had been circumvented.
- Mr. Burl Cain’s daughter-in-law, former Avoyelles Correctional Center business manager Tonia Bandy Cain, was indicted in January 2017 for malfeasance in office, theft of $25,000 or more and injuring pubic records. Mrs. Cain is accused of trying to cover up more than $30,000 in missing concession sale funds by ordering the shredding of documents. She was indicted on further charges in August 2017 for inappropriately charging $152,000 to a state credit card.
- Mr. Burl Cain’s one-time subordinate, former Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola supervisor Sidney Davis, was arrested last year for using prison employees’ club funds to buy alcohol, La-Z-Boy recliners, a sound machine and other questionable items, including nasal spray. He told investigators that the purchases were an accident.
- Another one-time subordinate of Mr. Burl Cain, Shirley Whittington, pleaded guilty in August to wire fraud for stealing $115,000 from a fund that was supposed to be used to create recreational opportunities for prison employees and their families who live on prison grounds. She used the money to shop online. The theft went on for years.
- A Louisiana newspaper described Governor Edwards’ Corrections Departments’ staff chart as a genealogical exercise because so many relatives of Mr. Burl Cain and Governor Edwards’ Corrections Department Secretary James “Jimmy” LeBlanc have been on the department’s payroll.
- Mr. Gary Shotwell was deputy warden when Secretary LeBlanc was warden at Dixon Correctional Institute. Mr. Shotwell and the husband of LeBlanc’s niece later got slices of $6.3 million in work on a building renovation the Corrections Department Secretary should have put out for bid but didn’t after Mr. LeBlanc became Governor Edwards’ Correction Department secretary. The niece’s husband got the design portion of the project. Mr. Shotwell got the construction portion.
- Under Mr. LeBlanc’s leadership as secretary, inmates convicted of violent crimes and sex offenses were allowed to repeatedly leave prison to play music at nursing homes and interact with children at a park. The trips stopped once the media reported on them.
- A Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office report found that the Corrections Department often loses track of inmates within the prison system. The Legislative Auditor found that 11% of the inmates reviewed by the auditor could not be found at the prison listed in their files. For example, the agency thought an inmate in prison on an attempted murder conviction was at an Evangeline Parish jail for months when he was actually at another facility some distance away.
- The same Legislative Auditor’s report found that Governor Edwards’ Corrections Department consistently struggles to calculate accurate release dates for the inmates.
- Governor Edwards’ Corrections Department spent $3.6 million on an updated inmate tracking system. The department used the new system for six weeks and then abandoned it.
- Col. Mike Edmonson oversaw the State Police arm of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Col. Edmonson allegedly abused his position to avoid paying numerous expenses. He got free housing and food and got state employees or inmates to walk his dog, maintain his son’s car and drive his wife around the state, including to concerts. Hotel rooms were provided to State Troopers during Mardi Gras season in New Orleans while they helped with law enforcement. Col. Edmonson allowed friends to stay in some of those rooms instead. At the same time, he tried to sneak through an unconstitutional, $300,000 retirement boost for himself and a colleague.
- Under Col. Edmonson’s leadership, State Troopers took a road trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon at Louisiana taxpayer expense. They charged the taxpayers overtime for their sightseeing. Col. Edmonson later called the side trip irresponsible. However, phone records – that he tried to erase – showed that he traded friendly text messages with the troopers during their excursion.
- Three Louisiana State Troopers have been accused of claiming a massive amount of overtime they did not work, as a result of an undercover investigation by a New Orleans television station. The television series, titled “State of Unrest,” included footage of troopers allegedly abusing a traffic law enforcement program by writing a full shift’s worth of tickets in a relatively short period of time. One trooper was paid $240,000 in 2016, $147,000 of which was overtime.
These are just a few of the reasons why the safety of the people of Louisiana is at risk because of Governor Edwards’ prisoner release program.
Thank you, Chairman Grassley, for your leadership.
cc: The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
The Honorable Orrin G. Hatch
The Honorable Lindsey Graham
The Honorable John Cornyn
The Honorable Michael S. Lee
The Honorable Ted Cruz
The Honorable Ben Sasse
The Honorable Jeff Flake
The Honorable Mike Crapo
The Honorable Thom Tillis
The Honorable Patrick Leahy
The Honorable Dick Durbin
The Honorable Sheldon Whitehouse
The Honorable Amy Klobuchar
The Honorable Christopher A. Coons
The Honorable Richard Blumenthal
The Honorable Mazie Hirono
The Honorable Cory Booker
The Honorable Kamala Harris
Not all of this is particularly germane to the question of whether Louisiana is letting the right prisoners out of jail under the implementation of the criminal justice reform package. It’s more of a “let’s throw all the dirt we can on Edwards with respect to his criminal justice record so as to discredit anything he says on the issue,” which is a pretty normal political tactic and one Kennedy is well versed in.
That said, it’s not a terrible argument to make that Edwards’ overall administration of the Department of Corrections hasn’t created a record most people would believe qualifies him to successfully implement the criminal justice reform package passed and signed last year. That record is terrible, and Edwards’ credibility on the issue is not very good. We’ve documented several cases of his release alumni returning to crime immediately after being released, and a common thread in those cases is the alumnus in question was without doubt a career criminal no one in his right mind would see clear to release early.
That’s also not good for Edwards’ credibility on the issue.
Kennedy, who is likely going to run against Edwards in 2019, has been probing the governor’s record for items which can build a narrative of him as a liar and an incompetent, and as we’ve noted the criminal justice reform issue is fertile territory in this regard. Given what we’ve already seen of the first batch of prisoners released under the governor’s program, it’s only a matter of time before someone he’s released rapes or kills someone and at that point we’ll have a Louisiana-style Willie Horton on our hands – complete with a Gov. Dukakis with a hillbilly accent. That’s a political dream for a sharp operator like Kennedy, and a ready-made narrative for which the ads and speeches write themselves.
And while Kennedy trashed the criminal justice reform package, which had some bipartisan support – among those pushing it were the Pelican Institute and LABI, and there were a number of Republican bill sponsors on some of the pieces to the package – as a disaster which should be called the Louisiana Prisoner Release and Public Safety Be Damned Act, he doesn’t really have to go that far in order to make this attack stick. The main thrust of his attack is that Edwards and the Department of Corrections are corrupt and incompetent, and their implementation of the package has been dysfunctional and unsafe. If that’s his line of attack in the future, he’ll make some room for some of the backers of criminal justice reform on his bandwagon, with an excuse to them that perhaps they were a bit naive in hoping Edwards would be able to manage such an effort without screwing it up and that’s a mistake they won’t make again.
And that bandwagon might well fill up, because as we said it’s just a matter of time before one of the alumni goes Willie Horton on the governor, and at that point there will be no escape from the political blowback.
This isn’t a particular political hill Edwards will want to die on, because he’ll surely die on it. But when you’re in your third year as governor and this package stands with Medicaid expansion and bringing in a computer tech support call center to New Orleans at a cost of some $60,000 per job to the taxpayers as your signature accomplishments in office, he’s more or less without a choice in engaging on this.
The question is whether the voters are paying enough attention yet to care about this fight. So far, Edwards’ approval ratings indicate they aren’t. But that could change dramatically in the space of a single news cycle.