Politically, the Ray Nagin Era ended on Feb. 6, 2010, with the election of current Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Although Nagin officially had three months left in office at that time, he proved no more capable during his lame duck tenure than he did during his feckless second term, when pretty much everything he touched turned fecal. That includes his ham-fisted attempts to enrich himself when he should have been leading the effort to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
While Nagin’s political arc ended in 2010, his pathetic personal saga drags on. On Wednesday (July 9), U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan sentenced the former mayor to 10 years in federal prison. A jury found Nagin guilty of 20 counts of corruption — including bribery, money laundering, wire fraud and tax evasion — in February. His wife Seletha has filed for bankruptcy in an attempt to hold on to the family home in Texas.
That’s quite a fall from grace for the guy who rode into office atop a wave of personal and political popularity in 2002. Nagin, who still maintains his innocence despite reams of evidence against him, faces an equally ignominious comedown when he reports to prison on Sept. 8.
Many expressed combinations of shock, disappointment and anger at the sentence that Berrigan imposed. The federal sentencing guidelines, which are not binding, suggested a prison term of more than 15-and-a-half years to 19-plus years.
Before imposing the sentence, Berrigan chided Nagin for abandoning his integrity, but she also made it clear that she intended to depart downward from the guidelines. She did, by more than a third.
Still, as veteran criminal lawyers Joe Raspanti and Donald “Chick” Foret noted, 10 years is a long time.
“It was lower than I had expected because the 188-month minimum that the Probation Office recommended seemed right on target,” said Raspanti, who provides legal analysis on WVUE-TV. “The downward departure, or variance, seemed to be larger than we usually see in this type of case — especially because he did not cut a deal and plead guilty. He also was not remorseful, nor did he accept responsibility. In fact, he emphatically said he was innocent, even until the date of his sentencing. To get such a break in the face of all that is unusual.
“Having said that, Judge Berrigan is known far and wide as a fair judge. I think she leavened justice with mercy in this case.”
Berrigan offered several reasons for the downward departure, including the fact that Nagin was not the “ringleader” that the feds claimed he was. That conclusion is supported not only by the evidence in the case but also by Nagin’s tenure as mayor. Even when he wielded the full mantle of mayoral authority, he couldn’t organize a one-car funeral — let alone a citywide recovery effort.
Given Nagin’s painfully inept performance as mayor, it’s a stretch to portray him as the mastermind of a grand criminal conspiracy. He’s just not that smart, nor that capable. Berrigan also noted that Nagin’s partners in crime stole millions, whereas he raked in barely a half-mill — and, according to Berrigan, he did it for his family, not for himself.
That’s a charitable description of Nagin’s venality, and it completely ignores the hubris and narcissism that Nagin displayed in abundance while he squandered four achingly long years of post-Katrina recovery time. He showed that same smugness on the witness stand, where he lied repeatedly.
Even Nagin’s lawyer seemed surprised at the 10-year sentence, says Foret, who appeared with defense attorney Robert Jenkins on the Angela Hill radio show after the sentencing.
“Ten years is a big number,” said Foret, who is the on-air legal analyst for WWL-TV. “And if you look at the big picture, it more or less matches other high-profile corruption cases. Edwin Edwards got 10 years for racketeering and [former Congressman] Bill Jefferson got 13 years for racketeering and bribery. However, Nagin’s sentence does not fit within the federal guidelines. It’s more than a one-third downward departure. To me it’s very surprising.”
Foret speculated that Berrigan, whom he described as “a very compassionate person,” perhaps wanted to give Nagin the longest sentence she could without sending him to a long-term prison facility. “The magic number 10 is how you get to a ‘camp’ in the federal system,” Foret said, “and that’s the number of years she gave him. Perhaps she wanted to give him an opportunity to salvage his life and his family.”
For his part, Nagin stuck by his story that he did nothing wrong. That’s consistent with his persona as mayor — headstrong to the point of narcissism and oblivious even to the obvious. In an interview with WDSU-TV after the sentenced was imposed, he displayed no remorse and took no responsibility for any wrongdoing.
“In my opinion, I’ve been targeted, smeared, tarnished and for some reason some of the stances that I took after Katrina didn’t sit well with some very powerful people,” Nagin said. “So now I’m paying the price for that.”
Actually, he’s paying a price for taking bribes, attempting to cover his tracks (however clumsily), lying about it on the witness stand, and generally for being a clueless and ineffective mayor and defendant. The feds reportedly offered him a deal that would have let him plead to a reduced charge with no more than two years in jail. That, of course, would have required him to admit wrongdoing — something Nagin cannot do.
The former mayor also told the TV station that the whole drama still seems “surreal” to him — offering further evidence of his psychic break from reality.
Karen Carvin, a local political consultant who, with her late father Jim Carvin, managed Nagin’s two successful campaigns for mayor, said her former client suffers from what she calls “The Palace Syndrome.”
“Elected officials — and it can be Democrat, Republican, from any background, from any part of the country — take their oaths and all of a sudden are surrounded by people who only tell them what they want to hear,” Carvin said. “They only hear good news and become insulated from the public. Often they don’t even believe their own polling numbers because of their profound self-assurance. This kind of thinking can easily lead to arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Some people lose their moral compass. Some never had one.
“I think Nagin ran for office with the best of intentions,” Carvin continued. “His lack of political experience was a plus as a candidate, but a deficit as mayor. His fall has been a disappointment not only to the city but also to so many who supported him and had high hopes for him.”
Noting the public uproar that followed the announcement of Nagin’s 10-year sentence, Carvin said she thought many citizens wanted Nagin at least to “take ownership of his administration, to admit responsibility for the mistakes that took place.”
That didn’t happen — and given Nagin’s persona, it likely never will.
“Maybe it would have made a difference,” Carvin said. “But that ship has sailed, and with it any chance for Ray Nagin to alter his political legacy.”
Nagin abhorred politics, probably because he never understood it and therefore never even tried to become competent at it. The notion of him leaving a political legacy thus seems absurd. It wasn’t always that way. When he came into office, the city was ripe for a political sea change. Instead, we got a self-absorbed outsider who, even after eight years in office, never figured out what a mayor is supposed to do — or how to do it.
And when tragedy struck on a grand scale, he was utterly unprepared and ill equipped to lead. His legacy, if you could call it that, is one of detachment, ineptitude and corruption.
Those who bemoan his 10-year sentence as not enough time behind bars can take comfort in this: A century from now, and forevermore, Ray Nagin will be remembered as the first New Orleans mayor who went to jail for public corruption.