One has to wonder how much bribe money is worth 10 years in prison. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, 58, must be considering that a lot these days. On Wednesday the businessman turned politician was given a 10-year prison sentence for corruption charges spanning his two terms as mayor.
Louisiana has a long and distinguished history of malfeasance by its public officials, both political and law enforcement. Nagin’s conviction isn’t a huge surprise, but this guy had an M.B.A. from Tulane University and was the former vice president and general manager of Cox Louisiana, the cable media conglomerate. He didn’t need to put his influence up for sale.
After being elected mayor in 2002, Nagin brought with him an anti-corruption campaign that resulted in local officials being led out of City Hall in handcuffs. His own cousin was arrested after being implicated in the taxicab bureau scandal. There was massive job growth under the Nagin administration. New Orleans was named the number one family destination in 2004, and it was the 4th best place to film a movie, earning the nickname “Hollywood South.”
The Big Easy was booming, and C. Ray Nagin was the man.
I moved to New Orleans in 2004 during Nagin’s first term. I hadn’t been there 10 months before Katrina roared into town. Ray Nagin is the reason I managed to get out of the city before the hurricane hit.
On Friday, Aug. 26, 2005, Katrina’s path shifted from the Florida Panhandle to the coastline of Louisiana and Mississippi. It rapidly gained strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Saturday morning every resident of Orleans Parish awoke to see a Category 5 hurricane coming right at us. That was a surreal circumstance, especially for those that haven’t lived under such conditions before, because it was a beautiful day in the Big Easy.
After listening to news reports all day, and tensions rising, my wife and I decided to head down to the French Quarter Saturday evening. In honor of the approaching storm we went to Pat O’Brien’s and ordered some large red hurricanes to drink as Mayor Nagin held a press conference that evening.
You have to understand Nagin was known as a straight shooter at the time. He didn’t use political-speak, and wasn’t a guy that got flustered. What he told us was that from a legal standpoint he couldn’t issue a mandatory evacuation, but that he advised all residents to vacate the city at this time, and that he was personally placing his family on a helicopter at the conclusion of his press conference.
That cut through all the rhetoric and hypotheticals for me. It was time to get the hell out of New Orleans.
Thankfully I had reserved a car with Hertz at the airport earlier in the day, just in case, because I didn’t own a car. I lived in a loft downtown and could walk to work. I grabbed a cab to the airport around 11:00 PM and proceeded to wait in a line all night with all manner of insanity going on around me in order to get a rental car.
The police showed up early in the morning when it became apparent there were not going to be enough cars for everyone. When they cut off the line there was public unrest. These were guys on bachelor parties, business travelers, tourists, and residents like myself, who were now trapped in New Orleans and would have to ride out Katrina.
I finally had keys in hand around daybreak Sunday morning, and we left town soon after. Katrina was packing 175 mph winds, with gusts to 190 mph at that time. She made landfall at 5:10 AM Monday morning as a Category 3 hurricane with 125 mph sustained winds.
The exact level of storm surge is unknown but between 14-16 feet was recorded, causing 53 levee breaches in greater New Orleans, submerging 80 percent of the city. Katrina remains the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history at $108 billion, bringing with it a death toll of 1,836.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina there was Ray Nagin. He was the only guy on the ground in the city. President George W. Bush was off giving speeches in California and vacationing on his Texas ranch as the levees breached. New Orleans didn’t make his To-Do List until Wednesday, when he decided to return to Washington. Mind you the president didn’t stop in Louisiana on his flight back from Texas. Bush compounded his ineptitude by flying over New Orleans in Air Force One, where dead bodies were floating in the streets and residents on rooftops pleaded for fresh water.
It was Nagin who found CNN and got the word out about how devastating this hurricane was, and that desperate help was needed immediately. My blood quickly returns to a boil when I recall the improbability and inexcusable cruelty exhibited by Bush, Dick Cheney, FEMA Director Michael Brown, and Sec. of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, in their taking FIVE DAYS to organize the delivery of water to New Orleans.
The recovery effort in New Orleans became a personal one. You had to fight to rebuild in the Big Easy. Ultimately what made it possible were celebrities like Jimmy Buffett, Brad Pitt, and Jon Bon Jovi, putting their names, talent and effort behind funding recovery efforts. But more importantly it was generosity from residents around the United States and abroad, who visited the Gulf Coast on church missions and spring breaks, swapping sweat with residents to gut contaminated houses and rebuild homes in damaged areas. Without that New Orleans would not be in the position it is today.
From tragedies like Katrina come opportunities. George Bush had one after 9/11. He could have used his office to help unify the country and the world, but instead made the dreadful decision to invade Iraq. After Katrina, Ray Nagin could have become the voice of reason, and used his position as mayor to discuss on a worldwide stage how poverty, racism, urban violence, inadequate education, and a lack of jobs, can bankrupt a city’s population. Instead he chose to line his pockets by selling government contracts for cash and gifts.
I voted for Ray Nagin in his 2006 re-election bid. I looked at it as a white grab for power when Mitch Landrieu, who was the lieutenant governor at the time, and now the current mayor, tried to take charge of this majority African-American city, when post-Katrina demographics were already showing a population shift that was much whiter in color.
I was wrong. Mitch Landrieu has worked tirelessly to raise the profile of the Crescent City, while trying desperately to improve the lives of citizens there and decrease crime.
Once Nagin was re-elected he became an absentee executive. He used his office and Katrina as a means to take frequent and extravagant trips around the world, under the auspices of spreading the word of the plight in New Orleans. Supposedly he was building good will and raising money for the city. This was untrue.
A January 2013 indictment detailed more than $200,000 in bribes to Nagin; truckloads of free granite for his family business, a paid family vacation to Hawaii; first-class airfare to Jamaica; private jet travel and a limousine for New York City. In exchange, extorted businesses won more than $5 million in city contracts.
Nagin was found guilty on Feb. 12 of 20 of the 21 counts in the indictment, including bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and filing false tax returns.
In addition to the 10-year prison sentence, U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan ordered Nagin to pay $85,000 in restitution, stating to a packed courtroom that Mr. Nagin was guilty of “rampant, inexcusable corruption.”
Now officially disgraced, and having earned the disdain of every resident of New Orleans, Nagin will report to the Federal Correctional Institution in Oakdale, La., on Sept. 8, to begin serving his 10-year term.
Before sentencing Nagin uttered to the judge that he would “trust in God that this would all work out.” We’ll see how that goes for Ray inside the walls.