The former mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, who first won office on a pledge to clean up City Hall and who later became the face of a city begging for help after Hurricane Katrina, is approaching the end of a journey of humiliation and disgrace, convicted by a jury of peers and facing up to twenty years in prison.
Even in the sometimes septic swill of New Orleans politics, Nagin, a Democrat, has set himself apart becoming the first mayor, serving or otherwise, to be found guilty of federal crimes. Instead of rooting out the corrupt practices that for long had been business as usual in the corridors of government, he succumbed to them, concluding that enriching himself was easier than crusading.
As his wife cried in the court gallery, Nagin listened calmly as the jury at his trial on Wednesday found him guilty of 20 of the 21 charges against him including bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. He was found not guilty of one count of bribery. He is to be sentenced in June.
Prosecutors at the two-week trial, which saw Nagin himself taking the stand in his own defence, had contended that starting even before the 2005 hurricane and for a good time during the city’s recovery, the mayor pocketed bribes and kickbacks to the tune of $500,000 in return for smoothing the way for local businesses bidding for lucrative supply and construction contracts with the city.
The goodies he received, prosecutors said, ranged from trips to Manhattan, Chicago, Hawaii and Jamaica to free cell phone service and cash payments channeled through Stone Age LLC, a granite countertop company he owned with his sons, who were not charged in the case. Sometimes they came in the form of lorries loaded with free granite slab for the company.
“He was using the power and authority of his office as leverage on city business to exact payoffs,” Assistant US Attorney Richard Pickens said during closing arguments on Monday. “He defrauded the citizens of New Orleans.”
Now ordered to remain under electronic monitoring at home pending sentencing, Nagin indicated only his disappointment. “I maintain my innocence,” he said as he left the courthouse. His conviction brought to an end a wide-ranging FBI investigation of his two-term administration which has already seen seven other contractors and officials convicted of participating in the kick-back scams or entering guilty plea deals.
Nagin once cut a figure of ebullience and swagger. When first elected in 2002, he was a political upstart after a career as a television cable executive. Wearied by corruption scandals in government and their police department, residents of the city saw him as a man with the energy and clear thinking to set it right.
He also had a reputation for clear speaking that was never more evident than in the days after Katrina that inundated 80 per cent of New Orleans and killed roughly 1,800 people. “You got to be kidding me, this is a national disaster, get every doggone Greyhound bus-line in the country, and get their assess moving to New Orleans,” he vented as he struggled to get the rest of the country to pay attention to what was happening. “They don’t have a clue what’s going on down here... I need reinforcements, I need troops, man.”
He was also capable of stirring unnecessarily controversy as when he hit back at suggestions that his city post-Katrina would have a lower concentration of African-Americans versus whites, which indeed happened. “This city will be chocolate at the end of the day,” he declared. “It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be, a chocolate New Orleans.”
While the federal response to Katrina was a fiasco and became one of the enduring scars on the legacy of George W. Bush, the mayor also saw his popularity progressively plummet amid the painfully slow pace of recovery. By the time he left after his second term, when investigators were already eyeing allegations of graft in his administration, his public approval ratings had hit the basement.
After the verdicts, Robert Jenkins, the lead defence lawyer for the former mayor, vowed to appeal saying only, “We did the best we could.” The prosecution had built a case in part on the compelling testimony of businessmen who said they had been directly solicited for money and favours in return for deals with the city. Among them Rodney Williams, owner of a construction consultancy, was asked the true nature of roughly $60,000 he had made in payments to Stone Age. “It was a bribe,” he said flatly.
Some recalled words Nagin offered in 2003 as he was first getting into his stride as the city’s new mayor and his numbers were high. “When we took office, we wanted to make sure we reset the rules of the game,” he said. “One of the first things we did was say corruption is no longer going to be tolerated.”