New Orleans ex-mayor: From reformer to convict
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Twelve years after he burst on the New Orleans political scene as a charming, reform-minded businessman vowing to clean up city government, former Mayor Ray Nagin walked out of a federal courthouse as the glum embodiment of how far a politician can fall.
Nagin was convicted Wednesday on 20 criminal counts stemming from his two terms as New Orleans mayor from 2002 to 2010, including the recovery that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He is scheduled for sentencing June 11 — his 58th birthday.
Nagin was a cable company executive and political newcomer when he succeeded Marc Morial in 2002. Soon after taking office, he announced a crackdown on municipal corruption, starting with the city’s vehicle safety inspection stations and issuing permits to non-eligible taxi drivers.
But federal prosecutors say his own corrupt acts began during his first term, continued through the Katrina catastrophe and flourished in his second term.
“We, in my family, thought of him as the ‘cleanup man,’” said Rainelle Smith, 64, a New Orleans resident who said she had voted for Nagin. “Instead he gets in office and he soiled it more.”
“The heat got hot during the storm. He couldn’t handle that, so he said, ‘Forget the people; I’m going to line my own pockets.’ It’s a disgrace,” said Jason Roland, 32, a former New Jersey resident who moved to New Orleans a few years after Katrina for a teaching job.
“It was a just verdict, fair trial, so no excuses there,” he said.
Nagin is perhaps best remembered for his impassioned pleas for help after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina, and his city descended into chaos. He was convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for helping businessmen secure millions of dollars in city work.
The federal jury found Nagin guilty of 20 of 21 counts. He sat quietly at the defense table after the verdict was read. His wife, Seletha, cried quietly as she sat behind him on the front row of spectators.
Before the verdict, Nagin, 57, said outside the New Orleans courtroom: “I’ve been at peace with this for a long time. I’m good.” Later, as a crowd of reporters and photographers swarmed him outside the courthouse, he was heard to say, “I maintain my innocence.” His attorney said there would be an appeal.
U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan ordered that bond for Nagin, now a Dallas resident, be modified to provide for “additional conditions of electronic monitoring and home confinement” pending sentencing.
Nagin, a Democrat, was indicted in January 2013 on charges he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — money, free vacation trips and truckloads of free granite for his family business — from businessmen who wanted work from the city or Nagin’s support for various projects.
The granite and some of the money came from developer Frank Fradella. More money came from another contractor, Rodney Williams, for Nagin’s help in securing city contracts. Convicted former city vendor Mark St. Pierre, who got a no-bid contract with the city in Nagin’s first term, provided trips to Jamaica and Hawaii.
A movie theater owner seeking tax breaks provided a trip to New York, prosecutors said. In a conspiracy count, prosecutors also said Nagin sought and got granite work for his business from a major retailer, identified in court as The Home Depot, while helping the retailer work out details related to the opening of a new store in post-Katrina new Orleans. The company was not accused of any wrongdoing.
Nagin had vehemently denied it all during several hours of testimony that spanned two days of trial. But the only not-guilty verdict came on one count of bribery involving a portion of the money from Williams.
Nagin had testified that key witnesses lied and prosecutors misinterpreted evidence including emails, checks and pages from his appointment calendar linking him to businessmen who said they bribed him. The defense repeatedly said prosecutors overstated Nagin’s authority to approve contracts. His lawyer said there is no proof money and material given to the granite business owned by Nagin and his sons, Stone Age LLC, was tied to city business.
The charges against Nagin included one overarching conspiracy count along with six counts of bribery, nine counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy and four counts of filing false tax returns.
The charges carry a variety of maximum sentences ranging from three to 20 years, but how long he would serve was unclear and will depend on a pre-sentence investigation and various sentencing guidelines.