U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan got it right when she sentenced former Mayor Ray Nagin to 10 years in prison Wednesday.
I don’t mean technically; that would be up to an appeals court to determine if the U.S. Solicitor General decides to challenge her decision, although the federal sentencing guidelines are more rigid than you might think. No, I’m talking about cosmically.
Ten years, significantly less than the 15 to 19 Nagin would have faced under the guidelines, feels sufficient under the circumstances. Ten years, of which Nagin will have to serve 8 ½ , gets the point across.
It’s harsh enough to serve as a deterrent to others. And it’s tough enough to punish his disturbing pattern of accepting favors from city contractors, particularly when combined with everything else he’s lost — his reputation, his ability to take care of a family that’s now so broke that his wife declared bankruptcy and is on public assistance, and any chance of a second act.
Because let’s face it: Nagin is no Edwin Edwards, who earned a similar sentence but resumed living large the moment he emerged from prison. There was clearly plenty of residual affection, and even admiration, for the four-term governor in some circles, but with Nagin, there’s just anger and sadness over his transgressions, both criminal and governmental. His charms have long since worn off. Thanks to Berrigan, Nagin, now 58, will likely get to live out his golden years in freedom, but it’s nearly impossible to envision a scenario in which he’ll ever be positioned to do harm again.
Prosecutors had actually sought a higher sentence than the guidelines suggested, not a lower one, on the theory that Nagin served as a leader in a wide-ranging conspiracy. But after not only sitting through the trial but covering the entire Nagin era, from euphoric beginning to literally bitter end, I walked away thinking that it was just too grand and sweeping a punishment for crimes that seemed so haphazard, and for a criminal who was so, well, hapless.
Berrigan too concluded that Nagin didn’t lead a broad, coherent conspiracy, as prosecutors had argued in attempting to enhance his sentence. He was no ringleader, and certainly no mastermind. He was more of an opportunist, instinctively putting out his hand or invoking his powerful position when a chance for potential return arose, with only mixed success. And, as she pointed out, the onetime Cox Communications executive did it all in a frantic, “deeply misguided” attempt to support his family, including his grown sons, after taking a six-figure pay cut to become mayor.
Berrigan was right, too, that at least some of the people he dealt with were “eager and willing to pay bribes to get extremely lucrative contracts with the city of New Orleans” and that “Mr. Nagin claimed a much smaller share of the profits of this conspiracy than any of the other members,” several of whom made millions. In effect, she seemed to have concluded that Nagin was an easy, albeit cooperative, mark for scoundrels. Sadly, he always was.
None of this means anyone should think of Nagin as victim.
He behaved horribly in office, when he spent way too much of his difficult post-Katrina second term focused on making government work for himself, not for his still-traumatized constituents. When asked about his questionable activities, he lashed out, lied and covered up. He even talked publicly of cold-cocking then-WWL reporter Lee Zurik after he demanding access to a calendar that, it turned out, listed multiple meetings with his co-conspirators.
And he behaved stupidly during his legal saga. He risked a huge sentence when he refused to plead guilty, even though the feds had a parade of cooperating witnesses and boatload of supporting evidence to throw at him during trial. From all appearances, he didn’t bother to help his lawyer craft anything resembling a coherent defense. When he took the stand, he was petulant and arrogant. As prosecutors pointed out (and as Berrigan conceded) some of his sworn testimony was flat-out dishonest.
His one smart move was sticking to a polite, perfunctory statement at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing. Defendants in other cases have used sentencing hearings to express remorse and throw themselves on the mercy of the court, but given Nagin’s ongoing claim that he’s an innocent man who was targeted by powerful interests, he probably wouldn’t have helped his cause by saying more.
Public stance aside, there’s no indication he gets that he did anything wrong. He may well have convinced himself he was still doing right by the city, even as he was carving out a piece of the action for himself and his family granite business.
Everyone else gets that he wasn’t, of course, and that clearly includes the judge. The sentence was surely lighter than many wanted or expected, but Nagin will still suffer greatly for his misdeeds. It meets the standards of justice.
It also, hopefully, offers closure — if not for Nagin, then at least for the city he so tragically let down.
Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.