Hours after a visibly humbled Ray Nagin took his post-conviction perp walk from the federal courthouse, I had the privilege of sitting down with the guy who actually uncovered the steaming pile of dung that became the case of United States of America v. C. Ray Nagin.
His name is Jason Berry. He is a blogger.
That's right, a blogger broke open this scandal on a blog called American Zombie (www.theamericanzombie.com). TV and newspaper reporters have crowed about their "scoops" on this story, but the truth is no one had it before Berry. His work continues on other investigative fronts, but he took time out to chat with me about the Nagin verdict.
What follows is an edited version (with Berry's permission) of a longer interview that is posted online (where else?) on Gambit's blogofneworleans.com:
Did you feel an element of schadenfreude when the verdict came down?
Berry: No. I honestly didn't feel vindicated in any way. In fact, I felt a little aggravated because I couldn't wrap my head around the efforts of the defense. I suppose it's my Catholic upbringing that seeks redemption for even a narcissist like Ray Nagin. There were so many things that could have been addressed in this trial but weren't. Having said that, I don't think there is any way to argue with credit card statements, checks and bank statements, which leads me to wonder why Nagin went to trial in the first place. I do think Nagin's prosecution and conviction are important for our city, though, and overall I'm relieved it actually happened.
You were onto this scandal long before anyone else in the media, yet you got very little credit for that. How did that make you feel?
B: I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me. I sat through about 70 percent of the trial and I watched other journalists being praised by the prosecution for at least a few stories I know I broke, namely the granite deal between Stone Age and Cornerstone, the HSOA subsidiary, and the existence of the credit card (former City Hall technology officer Greg) Meffert was using under Netmethods' name. Perhaps I'm taking it too personally, but I think there was an effort to diminish my role by both the prosecution and other journalistic entities. From the prosecution side I suppose I understand that the last word they wanted coming up in this trial was "blogger" in the wake of the (U.S. Attorney's office's) commenting scandal, but on the journalistic side it's tough to read commentary that dismisses and diminishes the work on the blog.
In your opinion, what did the feds get right and what slipped through their fingers?
B: I think they did exactly what they wanted to do. They got near perfect scores with Nagin across the board. What I don't understand is how so many people skated out of the entire Nagin debacle without being charged. I think someone needs to go face to face with Mark St. Pierre, the guy serving a 17-and-a-half-year prison sentence for bribing Nagin, and explain why these guys weren't prosecuted like he was. That is the real turd in the punchbowl for me.
What do you think is the future of blogging (and bloggers) as relates to investigative journalism, particularly on the local level?
B: I have no sibylline insight on this. I can't even tell you if I will still be doing this by this time next year because it takes an enormous toll on my personal life. ... With respect to blogging and investigative journalism, I don't think it has a bright future simply because it's not exactly a wise career decision. Even in the "professional" world of journalism, you have to be willing to sacrifice everything, even your job, to truly pursue the goal. The luxury I've had is that no one can fire me or stop me from writing about sensitive issues that affect our city, but there is still tremendous risk involved and that weighs heavily on me daily. It's a pretty thankless job unless you reach a level of national stature ... or you're Lee Zurik.