Ten years in jail is no cakewalk, but Ray Nagin caught a break Wednesday in having his sentence decided by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.
Nagin’s overall record of erratic behavior and indifference to the city he was supposed to lead had meaningful consequences for New Orleans — and its suburban parishes and the rest of Louisiana — as our region and state struggled to recover from the costliest disaster in U.S. history.
Berrigan seemed to understand this when she said, “The seriousness of Mr. Nagin’s offenses can hardly be overstated.”
But she then proceeded to understate the nature of his offenses in rendering a sentence that was about half of what prosecutors sought.
The judge gave generous credit to the mayor’s “genuine, if all too infrequent” desire to help New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Wrong. He not only continued the pattern of demanding cash and favors from his first term but accelerated the shakedowns, even as New Orleans’ desperate situation cried out for a focused and resolute mayor. He gave a break that helped Home Depot open an outlet in the shadow of the Superdome by relieving the retailer of the requirement that it hire local residents. Then, he strong-armed Home Depot to steer business to his family’s granite countertop business, Stone Age.
Nagin’s idea of recovery was personally profiteering from it.
Was Nagin a passive actor, waiting innocently to be corrupted in his high-ceilinged office on Duncan Plaza by offers of cash, trips to New York or deliveries of free granite?
Wrong again. When engineering contractor Rodney Williams tried to win city business, Nagin insisted that he make a sham investment of $72,000 in Stone Age.
Berrigan saw significance in the relatively modest fruits of Nagin’s corruption. Prosecutors estimate the value at about half a million dollars. “Mr. Nagin claimed a much, much smaller share of the profits in this conspiracy,” Berrigan said.
Also wrong. Nagin’s modest take more likely shows that he was bad at being a crook, just like he was bad at being a mayor.
Berrigan’s decision is especially disheartening, since the judge seemed to appreciate the corrosive effects of political corruption in Louisiana and especially in New Orleans.
“Corruption breeds public cynicism, nowhere more than New Orleans, where the perception of the city as a hub of corruption persists,” she said.
That perception continues, as much as there has been a diligent effort by Nagin’s successor to change it.
A sentence below the federal guidelines is a judgment call, but it sends the wrong signal about our tolerance for public corruption in New Orleans.