In a recent letter to U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan, Jarin Nagin writes: “I can remember my dad asking my brother and I, ‘what would y’all think about me running for mayor?’ ”
Now facing the 10-year prison sentence Berrigan handed him on Wednesday, Ray Nagin may be wishing his offspring had protested.
He’s probably not the only one second-guessing the political decisions made in New Orleans in 2002.
That year, Nagin and 14 other people were on the ballot to succeed term-limited Mayor Marc Morial. They ranged from political nobodies notable mostly for whimsical nicknames (Manny “Chevrolet” Bruno, Albert “Superman” Jones) to two City Council members, a state senator and the chief of police.
Might any of them have better-handled the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005? Would they have been as susceptible to graft?
The years that followed Nagin’s election gave voters the answers about Nagin. His image of cool competency began to break down. New Orleans, awash in the Katrina catastrophe, was saddled with a mayor in over his head and — as we now know — corrupt.
Richard Pennington, the Morial-era police chief who faced Nagin in the 2002 runoff, had accused him of financial misdeeds. The accusations were neither clear nor substantiated, though now they seem prescient.
Pennington ran a lackluster campaign but was credited in his time as police chief with instituting reforms and driving down crime. Would his reforms have stuck had he become mayor? Would the police force under a Pennington administration have more professionally handled the chaos after Katrina — officer-involved shootings of civilians, the burning of a body, police looting — that overshadowed the heroism so many police officers and other first responders displayed after the storm.
Nagin was a political novice, but he campaigned as a good-government candidate with strong backing from a business community weary of the city’s corrupt political climate. As a businessman and head of the local cable TV franchise, Nagin promised to make city operations more business-like and customer-friendly.
Could experienced politicians like then-legislator Paulette Irons or City Council members Troy Carter or Jim Singleton have been any more adept at dealing with evacuations before Katrina and the massive bureaucracy of the recovery?
Would any of the other 14 have ended up standing before a federal judge after a conviction on charges of abusing the Mayor’s Office for personal gain?
Nagin plans to appeal his conviction, but prosecutors may appeal, too. They objected to Berrigan’s 10-year sentence. Nagin’s crimes were too serious, they said, his lies too persistent. They left open the possibility the Justice Department may seek more jail time for Nagin.
It’s difficult to argue with their assessment of Nagin’s crimes. He was convicted on 20 counts, including conspiracy, bribery and fraud. Prosecutors said he took cash, vacations and other bribes from businessmen in return for steering city contracts their way.
Berrigan herself didn’t downplay the impact, using the word “betrayal” at one point and noting that the corruption happened when New Orleans most needed a strong and honest leader — and not another assault on its image.
“Corruption breeds public cynicism, nowhere more than New Orleans, where the perception of the city as a hub of corruption persists,” Berrigan said.
Under federal guidelines, Berrigan could have sentenced Nagin to 20 years.
The judge determined Nagin wasn’t a ringleader in the series of corrupt acts, feeding an image of the former mayor as being as feckless a criminal as he was a mayor. She also noted Nagin’s relationship with his children and his wife of more than 30 years.
Those family members pleaded with Berrigan for leniency in letters now part of the public court record. They insist he is not guilty, a victim of misleading prosecutors. The emotional pleas of his teenage daughter are at times difficult to read.
Nagin hasn’t helped his own cause. He has never apologized. After his sentencing, he maintained his innocence in an interview with WDSU-TV. This, despite a well-documented case by prosecutors that led to conviction on 20 of 21 counts.
Nagin seems genuinely befuddled by it all.
Some in New Orleans are second-guessing Berrigan’s decision to go relatively easy on him. His 10-year sentence may be viewed by some as lenient, but it is also a merciful ending for a city burdened by more than its share of grief over the past decade.
Kevin McGill is an Associated Press reporter based in New Orleans.