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Ex-New Orleans Mayor Starts Long Jail Term for Corruption


Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin leaves federal court with his wife Seletha Nagin after being sentenced in New Orleans, July 9, 2014.

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin leaves federal court with his wife Seletha Nagin after being sentenced in New Orleans, July 9, 2014.

Late August, 2005. The city of New Orleans is battered, then drowned, by Hurricane Katrina, taking more than 1,800 lives.

In the aftermath of that historic storm, the city’s mayor, Democrat Ray Nagin, 58, became the man who would lead the city’s rebuilding over the next several years. His face became known worldwide as an icon of his city and its revival.

Only later, did Nagin’s dirty inside story become known to federal investigators and then revealed in the courts.

Convicted in February

Nagin was brought to trial and convicted in February 2014 on 20 out of 21 counts [charges] of bribery, fraud, and money laundering.

Federal officials say Nagin took at least $500,000 in under-the-table money in exchange for several contractors getting millions of dollars’ worth of city contracts. Now, the former mayor claims he’s penniless, his family subsisting on public assistance.

Last week, the man who led the city of New Orleans through and after Katrina until leaving office in 2010, took on a new identity: federal prison inmate 32751-034. His new residence for the next 10 years is the minimum-security federal prison in Texarkana, Texas.

Despite the overwhelming number of convictions against him, Nagin told the public that he’s innocent – and these charges have been fabricated.

“I’ve been targeted, smeared, and tarnished,” Nagin told WDSU television. And, he added “for some reason, some of the stances that I took after Katrina didn’t sit well with some very powerful people. So now, I’m paying the price for that.”

Nagin has tried to refute the evidence used to convict him saying, “The prosecutors were fairly magical in their ability to take something that supposedly happened and paint it as reality when it didn't really happen.”

Court testimony during Nagin’s trial refuted the ex-mayor’s claim that the prosecution came up with so-called “fairy tales.” So did the testimony given in the trials of others connected to Nagin during his eight years as mayor.

'Kickback scheme'

Nagin’s chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, was arraigned on 63 felony counts in 2009 in what was described as a “lucrative kickback scheme,” though he ultimately plead guilty to only two counts: conspiracy to commit wire fraud and filing a false tax return.

The New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper reported that year that Meffert and Nagin took a Hawaii vacation in 2004, the latter’s ticket paid for by a city contractor.

The newspaper also reported in April 2009 that Nagin took a number of trips paid for by NetMethods, a vendor to the city owned by Nagin campaign contributor Mark St. Pierre.

When Nagin was indicted in January 2013, the counts spelled out more than $200,000 in bribes paid to the mayor.

Other charges included private jet travel, first-class airfare to Jamaica, and other gratuities for himself and his family. The indictments say that in return, businesses that did favors for Nagin won more than $5 million in municipal contracts.

During Nagin’s trial, a succession of people who had already plead guilty to engaging in bribery with the ex-mayor were put on the stand by the prosecution.

Court-watchers said that made the case against Nagin nearly airtight.

Federal Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan could have sentenced Nagin to 20 years in prison.

Observers said that one reason why the judge didn’t give the ex-mayor the maximum sentence was that Nagin appeared to be the beneficiary, rather than the instigator, of the corruption. In other words, contractors and others approached the mayor with cash and gratuities rather than Nagin demanding that others give him what he wanted.

Over the years, the state of Louisiana has had a long tradition of political figures going from their gilded offices to jail cells.

New Orleans City Council member Oliver Thomas was given a 37-month sentence in 2007 for taking $50,000 in kickbacks.

Family connection

U.S. House of Representatives Louisiana member William Jefferson drew 13 years in prison in 2009 for taking bribes in connection with businesses in Nigeria. Betty Jefferson, his older sister, drew a 15-month sentence for directing $1 million in public money to charities she was involved with.

Ex-governor Edwin Edwards was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2002 for extorting some $3 million in payoffs connected to the granting of gambling licenses.

When Nagin took office in 2002, he launched an anti-corruption campaign.

Among the targets of his clean-up was the city’s Taxicab Bureau and Utilities Department. One of the persons involved was Nagin’s own cousin. When asked what should be done about him, Nagin quipped “If he’s guilty, arrest him!”

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    Jeffrey Young

    Jeffrey Young is a Senior Analyst in VOA’s Global English TV.  He has spent years covering global strategic issues, corruption, the Middle East, and Africa. During most of 2013, he was on special assignment in Baghdad and elsewhere with the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  Previous VOA activities include video journalism and the “Focus” news analysis unit. He also does journalist training overseas for VOA.

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