Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has made history by becoming the first mayor in New Orleans’ nearly 300-year history to be tried and convicted for a crime committed while in office.
Nagin, a New Orleans businessman and Democrat who famously vowed to root out corruption once elected, was found guilty on 20 of 21 counts in a federal court. He was convicted on one count of conspiracy, five counts of bribery, nine counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering and four counts of filing a false tax return.
The 57-year-old ex-mayor was found not guilty on one count of bribery, stemming from an alleged bribe involving businessman Rodney Williams.
“I maintain my innocence,” a stoic-faced Ray Nagin said as he left the federal courthouse.
“We did our best,” lead defense attorney Robert Jenkins told reporters. “I’m surprised. I really thought the jury would not find him guilty of any of these counts,” Jenkins said. “We will move on to the appeal process.”
A sentence hearing has been set for June 11.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Nagin could face 20 years behind bars, and possibly more time plus fines. The former mayor remains free on bond and was not taken into custody.
At times during the trial, a defiant Nagin engaged in heated exchanges with federal prosecutors and denied taking bribes although he did acknowledge that he did whatever he could to support his sons and the family business.
“Like any father, I wanted to help my sons,” Nagin testified.
When his time on the witness stand was finally over, Nagin said, “Thank you Jesus.”
“Our public servants pledge to provide honest services to the people of Southeast Louisiana,” U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, a New Orleans native who took over the reins at the U.S. Attorney’s Office after his predecessor was forced to resign amid an online posting scandal, said Wednesday in a written statement. “We are committed to bringing any politician who violates that obligation to justice.”
The 21-count federal indictment charged Nagin with accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and truckloads of free granite for his family business, Stone Age, in exchange for promoting the interests of local businessman Frank Fradella. Nagin, who as a newly installed mayor pointed to the pre-dawn arrest of a cousin who drove a cab as proof of his seriousness about ending public graft, was also charged with accepting at least $60,000 in payoffs from contractor Rodney Williams for his help in securing city contracts.
“The road to former Mayor Ray Nagin’s conviction began with one phone call from a courageous citizen,” Rafael C. Goyeneche III, a former cop and president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said in a released statement. “That citizen told the MCC about shipments of granite from Florida by the truckload to the Nagin family business in New Orleans. It was only one piece of a corrupt puzzle but when placed in the hands of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the pieces grew one by one into a sprawling picture of corruption and betrayal.”
From the day he was inaugurated when he jumped out of a horse-drawn carriage in the middle of Faubourg Tremé — to the surprise of his wife, reporters and onlookers — to second- line in the street, to the day he told the federal government to get off its “ass and do something” after Hurricane Katrina, Ray Nagin had a knack for keeping things interesting. He will be forever remembered for his infamous “Chocolate City” remark, proposal to reopen the Canal St. hotels as casinos after Katrina, his decision to mask as the Roman general Maximus on Fat Tuesday and his description of himself as “vagina-friendly” during a local celebration of “The Vagina Monologues.”
“Nagin’s legal problems began long before his indictment on 21 counts of corruption,” W.C. Johnson, a member of Community United for Change and host of local cable-access show “Our Story,” told The Louisiana Weekly. “Nagin first began deceiving the people of New Orleans when he changed his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat. During his tenure as mayor, Nagin displayed Republican values throughout his color of governance. In addition, Nagin ran scared for his reelection bid that caused Nagin to embrace his Black roots and persuade the working poor to reelect him for a second term. The amount of political capital Nagin owed to the working poor should have raised the living standards of the working poor and the economic stability of the Black business community. Unfortunately, neither group benefited from the support in rejecting Mitch Landrieu’s bid to upset the Nagin administration.
“The worst demonstration of Nagin’s rejection of the working poor and Black business community came when public housing residents petitioned the mayor and his administration to reject the demolition of the major housing communities known as projects,” Johnson continued.
“Nagin’s rejection of the very people who saved the Nagin Administration was the beginning of Nagin’s demise. Interestingly enough, many Black politicians in New Orleans are blinded by the illusion of ‘good old boy’ politics being the saving grace when it comes to the relinquishing of political power through the electoral process. Blacks who are allowed to ascend to political positions in New Orleans either lack the vision of empire building or are dissuaded by the images of ‘Strange Fruit’ hanging from the poplar tree. Without regards to historical accounts, Blacks dismiss the notion of, ‘the greater the risk, the greater the rewards.’ Using Atlanta as an example, America has witnessed what Blacks can do once they go all in for the high-stakes game of politics. Regrettably, Blacks in New Orleans would rather risk going to jail as a common thief than risk death for control of the pie. Once again settling for the crumbs from the pie instead of getting the pie.”
In 2006 Nagin defeated challenger Mitch Landrieu in a hotly contested race to win a second term as mayor.
Landrieu, who became Nagin’s successor in 2010, talked about the Nagin conviction Wednesday.
“This is a very sad day for the people of the city of New Orleans,” Landrieu said. “The conviction of former Mayor Nagin is another clear indication that the people of this city will not tolerate public corruption or abuse of power. Four years ago, the people of this city turned the page on that sad chapter for New Orleans and on the old way of doing business. We are moving forward and are restoring the public’s trust in government. Our city’s best days are ahead of us.”
W.C. Johnson said there’s a lesson to be learned from Nagin’s fall from grace.
“Ray Nagin, William Jefferson, Oliver Thomas, and others should pass on to Black political hopefuls the merits of self-determination for the race, instead of individual riches,” Johnson told The Weekly. “The old cliché, ‘a rising tide lifts all ships,’ needs to be the watchwords for Black politicians in New Orleans.
There are only a few metropolitan cities that enjoy a Black majority. Fewer still are metropolitan cities that reward the Black population because the Black race is in the majority. European history reveals European conquest. In the vigor that Blacks embrace the European model, why have Blacks overlooked the conquest of empire-building blocks that lead to true political power? Are Black politicians so disconnected and self-absorbed, or are Black politicians so afraid that the obvious eludes them?”
Sounding like a fallen elected official who believes he suffered a knockdown but is not out for the count, Nagin sent the following message via Twitter Thursday: “Praying 4 prosecutors, government witnesses, jurors…God still in control.”
A similarly upbeat Robert Jenkins said he was hopeful about the findings of a report about prosecutorial misconduct in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
“I promise you that if it’s what we think it is…it’s a bombshell,” Jenkins told FOX 8 News.
According to FOX 8 News, the report is being kept under wraps by U.S. District Judge Kurt Englehardt for now.
A similar investigation by the Feds led to the overturning of a number of convictions in at least one high-profile, post- Katrina murder case involving NOPD officers.
“There are many objections, and those appeals are based on those,” Jenkins said.
For now, Nagin remains in Dallas, Texas on home confinement.
“New Orleans has been damaged in an immeasurable – yet, thankfully not irreparable – way by Ray Nagin’s and Greg Meffert’s campaign of corruption and self-dealing,” former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, Nagin’s immediate predecessor, “It is a sad day for all of us when those who are elected and entrusted to protect our citizens demonstrate such little regard for the tremendous duty and responsibility of leading this great city. I hope that this conviction reminds the current generation of New Orleans elected officials, as well as others across the nation, of just how essential personal integrity and commitment are to public service.
“Fortunately, my hometown of New Orleans is strong and resilient and has already begun, under a new administration, to move past the damage directly caused by Nagin and Meffert,” Morial, who currently serves as National Urban League president, added. “Elected office is a sacred public trust, and ineptitude, lack of integrity, and abuse of power have no seat at the table. I hope that everyone who is proud to call New Orleans “home” can now fully put this behind us and move on to the business of continuing to push our city forward.”