Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin Found Guilty of 20 Counts of Bribery and Fraud in Federal Case

Nagin Guilty of 20 Counts of Bribery and Fraud

By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
FEB. 12, 2014
New York Times

NEW ORLEANS — C. Ray Nagin, a former corporate executive who became mayor in 2002 pledging to modernize city government and instead became an emblem of government dysfunction in the months and years after Hurricane Katrina, was found guilty in federal court on Wednesday on 20 counts of bribery and fraud.

The verdict marks a dubious milestone in a city long associated with an ethically loose style of politics: It makes Mr. Nagin the first New Orleans mayor to be charged, tried and convicted of corruption.

He was found guilty of all but one of 21 counts, including bribery, wire fraud and filing false tax returns. Sentencing has been set for June 11, Mr. Nagin’s 58th birthday. Mr. Nagin could face 20 years in prison by federal sentencing guidelines, said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor and a former federal prosecutor.

On his walk out of the courtroom and across chilly Lafayette Square to his lawyer’s office, Mr. Nagin, who will be confined to his home near Dallas for now, kept up a stoic demeanor in the middle of a swarm of cameras. He told reporters he maintained his innocence, and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, said Mr. Nagin intended to appeal.

Over the eight-day trial, federal prosecutors and more than two dozen government witnesses had described Mr. Nagin’s involvement in a series of roughly similar schemes: city projects would be awarded to — or municipal problems fixed for — businessmen who in turn would give Mr. Nagin large payments, private trips to Jamaica and New York, free cellphone service, lawn care, do-nothing consulting jobs or free shipments of granite for the countertop company he ran with his two sons.

Much of this was known to New Orleans residents through reports in the local news media during his second term and later through the guilty pleas and criminal trials of others involved in the schemes, several of whom were government witnesses.

Mr. Nagin, who testified over two days, had claimed that he had little control over the contracting process, and described some of the payoffs as legitimate investments in his sons’ business. In one case involving a contractor’s $10,000 payment to Mr. Nagin’s sons, the jury agreed with Mr. Nagin. But they sided with the government on the rest — a total of illicit proceeds that the government put at half a million dollars.

“Our public servants pledge to provide honest services to the people of Southeast Louisiana,” said Kenneth Allen Polite Jr., the United States attorney for Louisiana’s Eastern District, in a statement after the verdict. “We are committed to bringing any politician who violates that obligation to justice.”

Mr. Nagin was elected in 2002 as an outsider dismissive of the old political machines. A cable TV executive with no prior governing experience, Mr. Nagin, a Democrat, was impatient with the stubborn rhythm of the city’s bureaucracy, a quality that endeared him to the media, reform advocates and upscale voters.

Of the city’s airport, he said in his first campaign that the city should “sell that sucker,” and many applauded his moxie. That he turned out to be much more adept at proposing big ideas than following through with them was something he acknowledged, and it became one of the qualities that most infuriated New Orleanians in the years following Katrina.

During his time on the witness stand, Mr. Nagin brought up Katrina several times, talking about how much work there was to be done in the recovery, how demanding his job was and how much pressure was put on the daily business of the city. But prosecutors turned this around, asking Mr. Nagin how he could eat expensive meals on the city credit card, or help a businessman get rid of steep tax bills in return for a trip on a private jet, when residents were hurting so badly. They also pointed out that some of the schemes predated the storm and continued after he left office in 2010.

Gary Clark, a political science professor at Dillard University in New Orleans, who as a Civil Service commissioner dealt with the mayor, dismissed any notion that the mayor did not know what he was doing.

“He’s a shrewd tactician,” he said of Mr. Nagin, pointing out how adeptly he had shifted from a largely white constituency in 2002 to largely black one in 2006. “You don’t win the mayorship of New Orleans by being na├»ve.”

Still, the inattention to detail for which Mr. Nagin was known seemed to form a part of his defense at trial.

From the witness stand, he testified that the extensive paper trail on which much of the case rested — calendar entries, tax filings, legal documents and city paperwork — was mostly handled by others, like accountants or assistants. His lawyer asked whether a person taking bribes would really be so careless as to leave such a record, behavior that brazenly flouts the wisdom shared by a former Louisiana governor, Earl K. Long: that one should never put in writing what one can convey in a smile, a nod or a wink.

Those who knew him say it is unsurprising.

“I think he may have been reckless,” said Oliver Thomas, a city councilman during Mr. Nagin’s term who pleaded guilty to taking a bribe in 2007.

Mr. Thomas raised a sentiment common among those who knew Mr. Nagin. While he may have been guilty of the charges, Mr. Thomas said, and may have known that his actions were against the law, Mr. Nagin may still question whether he truly did anything wrong.

Having spoken from the witness stand about a “300 percent cut in salary” when he left the private sector, some said Mr. Nagin may have preferred to maintain the lifestyle he had enjoyed in the corporate world.

“I think when he went into the government sector he could not remove his private sensibilities,” said Andre Perry, an activist and professor who was involved in public education issues during Mr. Nagin’s second term. “You just can’t do the things you did” in the private sector, he said.

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