Louisiana has given the world enough disgraced public officials to fill up an entire federal prison, or at least a wing of one. But there should be a special place in the pen for one particular category of wrongdoer.
It's bad enough when elected and appointed leaders violate the public trust by taking kickbacks from recipients of juicy public contracts, the kind that are inflated in the first place so that taxpayers bear the corruption's cost. It's bad enough when they help themselves to extra publicly funded perks, or when they use either the power or the aura of their positions to fill their personal bank accounts.
But it's even worse when they loot vital public functions that serve the most innocent, and take advantage of people of goodwill seeking to support these institutions, in the process.
That's what famed musician and former board chair of the New Orleans Public Library Foundation Irvin Mayfield is accused of doing, according to an infuriating, not at all surprising federal indictment that came down last week. Piggybacking on a series of investigative reports by WWL-TV's David Hammer, the feds accused Mayfield and business partner Ronald Markham of a wide-ranging conspiracy to hijack donations to the foundation, which was set up solely to support the city's perpetually struggling libraries.
On the final night of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, trumpeter Irvin Mayfi…
Irvin Mayfield, the Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpet player who became a prominent civic f…
Instead, the indictment alleges, Mayfield and Markham led a conspiracy to funnel nearly $1.4 million of the foundation's funds to "to unlawfully benefit themselves." The indictment charges that the money went toward shoring up Mayfield's struggling New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and other ventures, to pay Mayfield's and Markham's six-figure NOJO salaries, and to finance expenses that had nothing to do with the libraries. Among the bills that foundation donors unwittingly paid were thousands in charges to high-end New York hotels and to Carnegie Hall. Another $25,000 went into Mayfield's personal checking account, $23,000 to Saks Fifth Avenue, $2,000 to Harrah's, and so forth.
It's worth remembering that the man who put Mayfield in the position to do all this was his political patron, former Mayor Ray Nagin, whose once reform-themed administration has already gone down in the books for dirty dealings. One of the former mayor's top aides, tech guru Greg Meffert, was caught accepting everything from use of a yacht to dinners at Chuck E. Cheese's with his kids from a friendly vendor. Meffert then testified against Nagin himself, who remains in prison following his bribery conviction.
I used to think I knew something about expensive New York hotel breakfasts.
It was Nagin who put Mayfield in charge of the libraries and then the foundation. And the indictment suggests that it was the loss of NOJO funding through a separate foundation controlled by the sitting mayor once Nagin left office that led to Mayfield's apparent desperation to save his pet project and maintain his cushy lifestyle. The greed and entitlement, it seems, were already there.
So were the conditions that enabled Mayfield to take advantage. The city's libraries serve both kids and adults with limited resources, provide safe public spaces, offer homework help and literacy courses and act as community anchors, yet they've always been woefully underfunded. Until a hard-fought new millage was passed shortly before the scandal broke, most libraries weren't even open on Fridays. The system was knocked to its knees by Hurricane Katrina, with numerous branches suffering terrible damage, and many well-intentioned citizens gave their hearts and souls to help it rebuild.
Private donations to the foundation were meant to pay for books, other informational materials and programming, all basic functions that the city has struggled to afford. That's it. That someone given control over the fund instead apparently used it as a personal piggy bank shocks the conscience.
So yeah, there should be a special place in prison for someone who's convicted on charges like these. There should also be a special place somewhere else.