Was former Mayor Ray Nagin corruptible from the get-go, or did he lose his way over time in a series of small missteps that escalated into the bribery schemes alleged in the 21-count federal indictment leveled against him? Gambit contributor Stephanie Grace and political editor Clancy DuBos offer different views — but perhaps each is correct, in its own way. Read both viewpoints here:
By His Own Rules
Nearly a dozen action-packed years later, it’s a little hard to put into words just how exhilarating disgraced former mayor Ray Nagin’s breakthrough moment was, and why.
In hindsight, his casually blunt assertion that “Man, I think we need to sell that sucker” — the “sucker” being the city-owned Louis Armstrong International Airport — was a silly, impractical and poorly thought out scheme to raise up to a billion dollars for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Like so many of Nagin’s big, bold ideas, it went nowhere.
But back when Nagin first uttered those words, well into a long, bureaucratic candidate debate leading up to the 2002 mayoral election, the bleary crowd jolted awake. Strange as it now seems, that zinger, as much as anything else, helped launch the little-known cable TV executive’s improbable journey from also-ran to mayor — and now, to accused crook.
It wasn’t just that Nagin was funny and charming; he surely was both. What clicked was that he was different.
It helped that the stars seemed to align for his ascent. Then-state Sen. Paulette Irons had promised to take the “For Sale” sign off City Hall, a reference to the common perception that Marc Morial’s administration was rife with patronage. (One of several ironies surrounding Nagin’s federal indictment is that in the beginning, his administration enthusiastically cooperated with the U.S. Attorney’s office to investigate Morial and his crew.) When Irons’ candidacy collapsed, it opened the door for another self-professed reformer.
Other big names on the ballot, City Councilmen Jim Singleton and Troy Carter, just seemed to offer more of the same, and beloved Police Superintendent Richard Pennington, Nagin’s eventual runoff opponent, proved ill at ease with non-crime issues and overly close to then-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, now imprisoned on unrelated corruption charges. Nagin emerged so late in the 2002 campaign that the initial infatuation, from business leaders, editorial boards and many a regular voter, had little time to wear thin.
Selling the airport was a non-starter, yet among Nagin supporters the idea served as a stand-in for a thrilling new attitude, a fresh way of approaching government. Maybe it took a swashbuckling outsider to think outside the box, the theory went, and to come up with ideas the traditional politicians on the ballot never would contemplate. That’s the way it was with Nagin in those early, heady days. It felt like the improbable could happen, that New Orleans could finally get its act together, reform its questionable ways and enter the modern era. Led by a mayor who decided the old rules just didn’t apply, who knew how far the city could progress?
That’s not the way it turned out, of course. Nagin arrived to tremendous fanfare, but he left City Hall in shame, amid furor over his stewardship of the Hurricane Katrina recovery and mounting evidence that he didn’t just break the rules for good, but for ill.
Sure, Katrina changed everything, from his political base to the gravity of the problems he was tasked to solve. But some patterns that emerged later, culminating in accusations that he accepted bribes from several former city contractors-turned-government witnesses, were apparent from the beginning.
He did things his own way, played by his own rules, in ways that jibed with his early image as a businessman out to make government more nimble, efficient and responsive. When he trampled the turf of the seven elected assessors and released their data in searchable form, for instance, Nagin revealed just how unfairly the tax burden was distributed. Many observers, myself included, cheered him on.
But Nagin also ignored convention in far less productive ways. His administration deleted emails that it was legally required to retain, even though his own city attorney had written a memo outlining the state mandate to preserve records for three years. When pressed, Nagin just shrugged off criticism.
And some of his departures from accepted practices found their way into the indictment. In 2004, the mayor issued an executive order declaring technology contracts exempt from city bidding protocols, an action that allowed his tech chief, Greg Meffert, to funnel millions of public dollars to his old friend Mark St. Pierre in exchange for lucrative kickbacks. Nagin too was the beneficiary of St. Pierre’s largesse, accepting family trips to Hawaii and Jamaica and cellphones for family members. Meffert pleaded guilty and St. Pierre was convicted at trial; both are believed to be cooperating with prosecutors against Nagin.
Then there was his entirely out-of-the-box scheme involving Stone Age LLC, a granite company Nagin set up with his family. The indictment alleges that Nagin killed a community benefits agreement designed to steer well-paying jobs to workers who lived near the new Central City Home Depot — in exchange for a deal to be the exclusive granite installer for four other area branches of the home improvement chain. Nagin also is accused of accepting free shipments of granite from another vendor, Frank Fradella, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating.
The rules-don’t-apply-to-me attitude wasn’t the only damning pattern that emerged in Nagin’s early days. From the beginning, he and some of his fellow private sector recruits — including Meffert — carried a certain air of entitlement. They talked openly about the big pay cuts they’d taken to work at City Hall and created a culture in which Meffert’s famous $10,000 bet with then-Councilman Jay Batt on the outcome of a sheriff’s race seemed normal. (St. Pierre bailed out Meffert when he lost.)
Nagin himself dined lavishly on the city credit card, even characterizing meals with his wife Seletha as city business. When questions inevitably surfaced, the mayor claimed that Seletha Nagin was one of his “key advisers” and that people often approached him in restaurants to talk. “That’s fair game to me,” he said. Nagin did acknowledge that the couple’s anniversary lunch at the upscale Magazine Street bistro Lilette crossed the line, and said he’d reimbursed the city.
And just as Nagin, in his early days, often seemed flummoxed by the intricacies of government, his later efforts to cash in on his position proved painfully unsophisticated and sloppy. He insisted his dealings with Stone Age were none of the public’s business, yet he used his city email account to pressure local business people to hire the firm. This was after Katrina, when the city needed his full attention, and after an emotional re-election campaign in which he promised to lead.
Unlike the first go-round, there was nothing exhilarating about that second campaign, and the same can be said of Nagin’s second four years. Any creatively can-do instincts Nagin had left, the indictment basically confirms, he put toward setting up himself and his family for life after City Hall. In many ways, he was still the same old Nagin we met back in 2002, the defiant guy who just wasn’t going to be bound by the rules that other people followed. To an older and wiser city, there was nothing funny or charming about it.
By Clancy DuBos
For all his talk of “changing the paradigm” at City Hall, former Mayor Ray Nagin’s arc from telegenic reformer to accused crook followed an all-too-familiar plot line: He started out full of ideals and good intentions, and then, step by step, one small seduction and compromise at a time, proceeded down his personal road to perdition.
To be sure, some politicians are corrupt when they get in the game. But the more common story line is one of a starry-eyed guy who runs for office to make a difference — a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tale, if you will, that somehow morphs into Mr. Smith Goes to Jail.
Do such people just wake up one day and decide to be corrupt? No, not really. Typically, they get seduced over time by the public adulation, the perks and, above all, the power. Before long they start to believe their own PR. They get a whole new set of friends who shower them with favors — small ones at first. They convince themselves they’re not doing anything wrong. They’re still honest, they convince themselves. Besides, it’s such a small thing — a free meal or a ticket to a ball game that, over time, becomes a plane ride or a golfing trip. From there, it’s another small step, really, to backroom business deals or just plain old cash.
Many become proprietary about their office, forgetting that it actually belongs to the public. They ultimately see their elected position not only as “theirs” to own, but also as their personal chattel — to pledge, pawn, sell or otherwise use for their own private gain.
Then they wake up one day up to their eyeballs in graft, with the FBI knocking on the door, and they ask themselves how it all happened.
I think that’s what happened to Ray Nagin. And the way it happened to him brings to mind one of his favorite catch phrases: tipping points.
Each small step that Nagin took, whether with criminal intent or unsuspectingly, took him that much farther down a dark, dangerous path. Each was, in its own way, a tipping point, a moment of critical mass, because each led inexorably to another, darker, more dangerous step. Now, many steps later, Nagin finds himself facing several lifetimes in jail.
How did that happen? Consider this timeline of Nagin’s tipping points, most of them alleged in the 21-count indictment against him:
Spring 2002 — Nagin is inaugurated as New Orleans’ new, reform-minded mayor. Immediately he gets a set of police bodyguards, a reserved parking space at City Hall and a city credit card. Everybody in town is kissing his ass and telling him how wonderful he is. The seduction begins.
Summer 2002 — Nagin’s administration “cracks down” on corruption by arresting a few dozen cabbies and minions at City Hall. The cases ultimately fizzle, but his image as a “reformer” is burnished by an adoring press (Gambit included). A narcissist to his core, Nagin falls in love with his image and, believing his own PR (as echoed by the media), he assumes rock star status. The perks and the power flow. It’s good to be the mayor.
June 2004 — Nagin signs an executive order authorizing his tech chief, Greg Meffert, to give “no bid” city work to Meffert’s friend and business partner Mark St. Pierre. The compromises begin.
December 2004 — The Meffert and Nagin families, now close friends, take a holiday trip to Hawaii. The trip is paid for by St. Pierre, who by now has a passel of lucrative City Hall IT contracts. Meffert wields a St. Pierre credit card as his own. This is how rock stars like Nagin and Meffert roll. It’s really good to be the mayor.
August-September 2005 — Hurricane Katrina hits. Nagin and the city are woefully unprepared for the disaster. Days after the storm, the mayor shines by calling out President George W. Bush, but a few short weeks later he slumps to the floor in the state Capitol and moans, “I did not sign up for this shit. I did not sign up for this shit!”
November 2005 — A weary Nagin takes his family on a first-class trip to Jamaica for some (in his view) well-deserved R&R. The trip was paid for by St. Pierre.
Winter/Spring 2006 — Nagin wins re-election, thanks to political capital raised at a Chicago fundraiser hosted by St. Pierre, who remembers his friend, the mayor, in his time of need. St. Pierre gets more no-bid city work.
May 2006 — A man the feds identify as “Businessman A” gives Nagin free private jet travel to, and limousines in, New York City. The feds say Nagin helped get penalties waived in connection with the businessman’s overdue tax bills and loan payments due to the city. The mayor’s office is now Ray Nagin’s chattel.
January-October 2007 — Corrupt businessmen Aaron Bennett and Frank Fradella treat Nagin to trips to Chicago and Las Vegas. Two months later, Nagin gives Fradella his first post-Katrina contract, worth $3 million. By the end of 2007, Nagin gives Fradella millions more in city contracts. During this same time, the Nagin family’s granite countertop business, Stone Age LLC, gets an exclusive vendor deal from Home Depot after the mayor helps the home improvement giant open a new store in Central City by brushing aside community concerns.
January 2008 — Nagin gets $60,000 from Rodney Williams via a shell corporation that doesn’t even officially exist yet, according to the feds. The perks have now escalated to full-scale bribes — a major tipping point that ultimately leads to Nagin’s indictment.
February 2008 — February 2010 — Nagin showers contracts on Williams’ company, Three Fold Consultants LLC. Those contracts are expanded after Williams pays $2,250 to Stone Age and, according to the feds, $10,000 in cash to Nagin’s sons in 2009.
June and August 2008 — Fradella ships two loads of granite to Stone Age from Florida. The granite is rumored to be worth more than $100,000. The feds also claim Nagin got a $50,000 bribe from Fradella via corrupt business associate Michael McGrath.
July 2010-March 2011 — The feds say Nagin got $112,500 in bribery payments from Fradella, most of them via wire transfers. This is after Nagin has left office, but the feds say it’s a fraudulent scheme to deprive the citizens of Nagin’s honest services as mayor.
January 2013 — Nagin is indicted by the feds on 21 counts of corruption. If the former mayor does not reach a plea deal in the coming months, a superseding indictment could charge him with more counts — and his sons could face criminal charges as well.
Nagin famously — and maddeningly — described his family’s post-Katrina trip to Jamaica on St. Pierre’s dime as “a blur.” Now, in the bright light of the federal indictment, every one of Nagin’s many steps down his road to perdition stands in sharp focus — if not to him, then certainly to a public long grown weary of this familiar tale.