From Katrina to the Clink: Ex New Orleans Mayor Heads to Prison

Once a savior to his Crescent City, Ray Nagin has dug himself a disgraceful hole and exposed himself as a greedy and corrupt failure.

Gerald Herbert/AP

After barely six hours of deliberation on Wednesday, a jury convicted former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin on all but one of the 21-count indictment for bribery, money-laundering and failure to report income to the IRS.

A subdued Nagin, who remains free on bond, maintained his innocence in brief comments to reporters, while his attorney Robert Jenkins said that they planned to appeal. He faces a prison term of at least 21 years.

In a trial that matched the psychodynamics of one of the strangest politicians this outback of democracy has ever produced, Nagin’s trademark charm has long since dissolved, exposing the shell of a narcissist. It seems Nagin the Mayor fell in love with the idea of himself, particularly after the media made him a national figure post-Katrina. In doing so, he failed to produce the money he needed to support his executive lifestyle, much less to help his pair of twenty-something sons get established in business. He therefore turned to a constellation of people seeking the inside shot at city contracts, raking in $500,000 in gifts, free trips and bribes.

The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Comer, put Nagin in the center of a conspiracy involving builders and subcontractors on the hunt for city business after massive devastation from the Hurricane Katrina flooding in 2005, which hit at the end of his first term.

When C. Ray Nagin emerged as a leading Democrat in the 2002 mayor’s race, a legendary soul deejay named Larry McKinley, homed in on his $1,000 donation to George W. Bush’s presidential campaign and put his big, husky voice into an attack ad. “Ray Nagin? Mmmph. Ray Reagan!” McKinley bellowed.

Comparing an upstart to W and Reagan would ordinarily kneecap a politician in a majority-black New Orleans, but Nagin had charm to light up a room. A muscular former baseball player, he had a mellifluous voice to blend with the gravitas; even if he was a closet Republican, a lot of people in this deep-blue town liked his call for a City Hall clean-up job. A Cox Cable executive, Nagin was a salesman who had never run for office. His opponent, Chief of Police Richard Pennington, had pushed through hard reforms on a corrupt department, but was a poor public speaker. Nagin, on the other hand, spoke well and garnered 80 percent of the white vote—enough to win.

Fast forward to 2006, with 70 percent of the city displaced after Hurricane Katrina, Nagin made a reelection event of Martin Luther King Day, declaring that New Orleans would always be “chocolate.” Thousands of displaced blacks, seething at the federal government as they sat in distant hotel rooms or the miserable FEMA trailers, saw the “chocolate city” speech and nodded. They got it. Nagin was standing up for them as they fought claims adjustors, trying to repair flooded homes, trying to get back.

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led a drive to get New Orleans voters in Houston, Baton Rouge and Atlanta back to vote, giving Nagin a new image with African-American voters. This time, Nagin won with 80 percent of the black vote and only 20 percent of whites. His second term turned disastrous. Mud-caked cars sat under overpasses for months, like carcasses that refused to rot. Unable to rally national support for a heavy infusion of federal funds, Nagin touted the magic of the marketplace, as if investors would suddenly see profit margins in a moribund city. As the recovery stalled, Nagin’s support even among African-Americans began a steady erosion.

He hid from the local media and threatened to punch out a TV news director, yet relished moments in the national spotlight. At one point, he said that the return of violent crime was at least keeping “the New Orleans brand” out there. Yet he was spending time with his family at a condo in Dallas, raising questions about his allegiance to the city he was supposed to be governing.

When he left office in 2010, reporters wondered what he would do to earn a living. The trial shed light on that, charging that Nagin despoiled his “honest services” in five separate bribe transactions, four counts of filing false tax returns, one count of money-laundering, nine of wire-fraud. The only charge he beat was a $10,000 check made to cash that the government claimed Nagin took for helping his two sons start a granite business called Stone Age.

A string of former city vendors, subcontractors and administration insiders, who had all copped pleas, testified to the bribes. Going into the trial, the evidence against Nagin appeared to be titanic.

Yet, he decided not to accept a plea bargain in advance, and instead gambled on going up against a well-armed U.S. Attorney’s office. Only problem was that he’d need a potent counter-narrative and a heavyweight (and pricey) defense attorney to do so and Nagin had neither.

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Jenkins, a respectable African-American defense attorney is better known for positioning clients to negotiate pleas. Although two Louisiana governors, a state attorney general and three insurance commissioners have gone to prison since the 1930s, this was the first indictment of a New Orleans mayor and the circle of lawyers who take high-profile cases to trial is fairly limited in most cities of this size—350,000 (or 1.2 million including suburbs); Jenkins is not in that circle.

“Ordinarily a plea bargain has a five year cap,” said Rick Simmons, a blue-chip defense attorney with no involvement in the case. “Sentencing guidelines can go beyond five years; but the bargaining caps it at five. The judge could consider the plea and that lessens the guidelines. You usually do 85 percent of the sentence”— which, in Nagin’s case, would be just under four years.

Simmons, who spoke only in general terms, added: “Sometimes defendants rationalize that they’ve done nothing wrong and think they can project their innocence to a jury.”

That was Nagin, who portrayed himself to jurors as a hard-working leader struggling to kick-start a recovery after eight-tenths of the city went under water, and meanwhile being a good dad, trying to help his sons launch a business.

“When I ran for office, I was a very successful businessman, and I took a 300 percent cut in salary,” he testified.

Neither of his sons took the stand. The prosecution decided that drawing them into the case, presumably as unindicted co-conspirators, would risk giving jurors a reason to think the government was trying to destroy a family.

Nagin didn’t do himself any favors by testifying. At one point he said he had only a 20 percent stake in his sons’ company, while the prosecution presented documents that had him holding interests of 38 to 60 percent. He received a $50,000 payment through Stone Age, which he called an investment in the company, accusing the witness who called it a bribe of being a liar. The jury didn’t buy that.

So it went, over two days of testimony, Nagin relying on pluck and grit to deny what people said were bribes, yet offering scant contrary evidence against the stacks of paper that prosecutors showed the jury to back their testimony.

One ex-mayor against all that the evidence.

What got Nagin into trouble was not the galloping greed of former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, who made millions with extortion of casino licenses before taking a seven year chair in a federal penitentiary.

No, Nagin’s problem was much more prosaic. The $500,000 value that prosecutors put on his ill-gotten gains, spread across five and a half years, did not offset the losses from his 300 percent salary cut at City Hall after leaving Cox Cable. The man who campaigned as a fresh image of reform was making sweetheart deals in a few short years to shore up his lifestyle. No testimony suggested he was salting money into Wall Street. It was much more petty than that: free tickets and a private plane to the Super Bowl. He took $112,000 for the first year after he left City Hall; and then the free condo in Dallas, until the company that owned it cut off the utilities. Ray Nagin was scrambling. One city vendor, who’s now in prison, paid for his lawn care plus a vacation to Jamaica.

The real story of Nagin risen through the testimony resembles Willy Loman, the character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a man so blind to his failure that he cannot take responsibility for himself. Nagin’s fingerprints were all over the ill-fated Stone Age deal; even while helping his sons, he needed some of the money, that $50,000.

At the climax of the play, Willy Loman ruefully tells his two sons that he was fired that day from his job. “I’m not interested in stories about the past or any crap of that kind because the woods are burning, boys,” says Loman. ”The gist of it is that I haven’t got a story left in my head.”

Jason Berry is author of a novel about Louisiana politics, Last of the Red Hot Poppas.