Ex-New Orleans mayor charged in corruption case
NEW ORLEANS -- C. Ray Nagin, the former mayor of this city who fulminated against the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina but became for many a symbol of the shortcomings of government himself, was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday on 21 counts including conspiracy, bribery and money laundering.
The indictment detailed a wide-ranging scheme of kickbacks and pay-for-play of a kind not entirely unfamiliar in Louisiana history. Contractors and vendors looking for work with the city would provide the mayor with vacations, big checks and even free granite for the former mayor's family business. In exchange, they would be awarded lucrative contracts with the city, assistance in defusing community opposition to their projects and even forgiveness of tax penalties.
While federal prosecutors have convicted a Louisiana governor, a congressman, a city councilman and school board members in the past 15 years alone, this is the first time in New Orleans history that a mayor has been indicted on corruption charges.
Mr. Nagin's lawyer, Robert Jenkins, did not return a call seeking comment. But he called a local radio talk show in the afternoon and in response to a question, suggested that the indictment had come as a surprise amid continuing plea negotiations.
But the indictment came as no surprise in the city, where people had been expecting it for months. Aside from someone identified only as "Businessman A," the other figures alleged to have taken part in the conspiracy have either been convicted or pleaded guilty to bribery and corruption charges in the past three years.
Even the timing was not a shock, as one of the contractors pleaded guilty in December to paying a $60,000 bribe to "Public Official A" on Jan. 30, 2008, which set off a five-year statute of limitations that would have come to a close this month.
While Mr. Nagin, 56, had not been officially named as a target of a federal grand jury, the pretense that "Public Official A," who showed up in another plea, could be anyone but the mayor had long since been abandoned on local news reports and in conversations around town.
Mr. Nagin came into office in 2002 as an outside reformer out to clean up City Hall, a business executive who disdained the old machine politics and was spouting new ideas. It did not take long for him to develop a reputation as a man whose thoughts far outpaced his actions, with ambitious proposals often going nowhere. "It was really a signature problem in his early administration," said Stephanie Grace, a former columnist for The Times-Picayune who covered his entire career as mayor. "It wasn't corruption. It was just things ... not happening."
While an inability to act is an unfortunate if tolerable trait in a mayor during normal times, it took on tragic dimensions after Hurricane Katrina, with the city's very existence in doubt. New Orleanians scattered around the country looked to the mayor for direction on how the city would rebuild, and, while he often offered colorful commentary on the recovery's frustrations, he gave little guidance even on crucial issues. "He basically made this decision not to decide," Ms. Grace said.
Still, although billions of dollars in federal money were coming into New Orleans after Katrina, few initially thought of the mayor as corrupt. Not until a series of Times-Picayne investigative reports and, in 2010, the guilty plea of Mr. Nagin's chief technology officer, did that perception change. According to the indictment, FBI agents had interviewed Mr. Nagin about kickbacks as far back as 2009.
The indictment alleges that the mayor began a kickback scheme in June 2004, when he adopted an executive order letting technology officer Greg Meffert engage a city vendor in a no-bid contract. The government also asserted that Mr. Nagin got kickbacks from the vendor, Mark St. Pierre, convicted in the spring of 2011 on 53 corruption-related charges. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to taking more than $800,000 in bribes.
If convicted, Mr. Nagin could face 20 years on each of nine wire fraud counts alone. His arraignment is scheduled for Jan. 31.
Current Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who lost to Mr. Nagin in 2006, only to win election in 2010 in part because of widespread voter remorse, issued a statement calling Friday "a sad day for the city of New Orleans." He added, "Public corruption cannot and will not be tolerated."
On Friday, Mr. Nagin, now living in Texas, reposted on his Twitter feed a message from someone else, televangelist Joel Osteen. "You are closest to your victory," it read, "when you face the greatest opposition."
First Published January 19, 2013 12:00 am