Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who portrayed himself as a straight-talking anti-politician determined to clean up the city’s notoriously corrupt culture, was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison for bribery, money laundering and other corruption during his two terms.
Nagin, 58, made himself the public face of misery and suffering during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, exploding at federal and state officials in a profanity-laced radio rant at the height of the city’s flooding. But he was convicted Feb. 12 of using his office to enrich himself with bribes from businessmen seeking his help — much of it for Katrina rebuilding.
During his federal trial, Nagin vigorously denied charges that he accepted money, free vacations and truckloads of free granite for his family business. Just before he was sentenced in court Wednesday, he declined to apologize but said, “I trust that God’s going to work all this out.”
U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan said she deviated from sentencing guidelines that recommended at least 15 years in prison because, in part, she did not view him as the leader or primary beneficiary of the bribery scheme. He was ordered to pay an $84,000 fine.
“Mr. Nagin claimed a much, much smaller share of the profits in this conspiracy” than businessmen who received millions of dollars in city contracts, the judge said. Prosecutors said Nagin raked in about half a million dollars.
The judge noted the former mayor’s “genuine if all too infrequent” desire to get help for the city and its residents after Katrina.
On the witness stand during his trial, Nagin breezily denied the charges. In a sentencing memo, prosecutors described “a performance that can only be summed up by his astounding unwillingness to accept any responsibility” for his crimes.
On Wednesday, Nagin walked out of court arm in arm with his wife, Seletha, alternately grim-faced and smiling as he hugged supporters. He is to report to federal prison in Oakdale, La., in September.
Prosecutors, who had sought punishment of up to 20 years, objected to the sentence, setting up the possibility of an appeal.
“Given the nature and extent of former Mayor Nagin’s criminal conduct and betrayal of public trust over the course of several years, hopefully this result will bring at least some level of resolution to the city,” Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Anderson of the New Orleans FBI office said in a statement.
Rafael C. Goyeneche III, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission in New Orleans, said the sentencing “brings to a close a sordid chapter in New Orleans history in which the man charged with leading a city out of crisis instead chose to enrich himself, his family and friends.”
As the black mayor of a city whose black population was devastated by Katrina and its aftermath, Nagin was viewed as a staunch defender of the poor and working class. But like many Louisiana politicians before him, he was undone by his direct role in the very corruption he professed to abhor.
Nagin was a former communications company executive and political unknown when he rallied support from whites and the business community to win the mayor’s office in 2002. He won reelection in 2006 with a campaign built on concerns by black voters that they were being shortchanged during the post-Katrina recovery.
Nagin’s speaking style could charitably be described as informal, if not incendiary. He said after Katrina that “New Orleans will be chocolate again.” He noted that the city’s reputation for violent crime “keeps the New Orleans brand out there.”
With his shiny bald head and lanky frame, Nagin burst into national consciousness with his profane radio diatribe as New Orleans sank under Katrina’s waters in 2005.
He said federal and state officials were “feeding the public a line of bull, and they’re spinning.” He said of President George W. Bush and then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco: “Somebody needs to get their ass on a plane and sit down, the two of them, and figure this out.”
Even after Bush flew over the city on Air Force One, Nagin remarked that viewing the disaster from a distance didn’t do the city any good.
The day after his comments, Nagin met with Bush aboard Air Force One at the New Orleans airport. In an interview with The Times later that day, Nagin laughed about the encounter and said he had apologized to the president. But he also said he did not regret his remarks.
“I always feel that in politics, you have a bridle on,” he said at the time. “Well, I took the bridle off. And I tell you, it felt pretty good.”
Nagin is the son of a mother who worked at a lunch counter and a father who was a clothing factory worker and a night janitor at City Hall. The former mayor was born in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, one of several medical facilities that ran low on power and medical supplies during Katrina flooding.
Nagin’s family rose to his defense after he was indicted in January 2013. Friends and family members inundated the federal judge with pre-sentencing letters of support that described Nagin as a selfless and dedicated father, son and public servant.
In a letter dated July 1 of this year, Nagin’s wife pleaded with the judge to delay sentencing so that the defense could prove its allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. Seletha Nagin wrote: “My husband has never been involved in any criminal activities and the only thing he could be considered guilty of is not better knowing the character of a few people who got close to his family.”
But prosecutors accused Nagin of lying on the witness stand on nearly two dozen occasions. They stressed that Nagin accepted bribes and kickbacks over a six-year period.
“These repeated violations, at the expense of the citizens of New Orleans in a time when honest leadership was needed most, do not deserve leniency,” Matthew M. Coman, an assistant U.S. attorney, wrote in a court document.
In his memorable 2005 radio interview during Katrina’s flooding, Nagin warned that a judgment day was coming for public officials who failed to help people whose lives had been destroyed by the hurricane.
“You know,” he said, “God is looking down on all this, and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price.”