Of the many elected political figures who have earned infamy and lengthy prison terms for crimes committed in office in recent years, perhaps only Rod Blagojevich — the coiffed, TV-friendly ex-governor of Illinois who tried to auction Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat — could challenge Ray Nagin’s national profile at its height.
Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures made it so.
With that bald pate, Cheshire grin and outsized persona toggling from charming to angry, bone-weary to alarmist, Nagin assumed the national spotlight as the face of a city enduring its bleakest days. Five months after the storm, a City Hall speech to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. — “It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans” — raised eyebrows and cackles across the country.
So it was no surprise Wednesday that the 10-year sentence Nagin received in federal court drew big national headlines from Washington, D.C., and New York to Los Angeles — perhaps more for the man than the prison term that U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan handed to the unrepentant ex-mayor.
The sentence itself was far from extraordinary compared to other convicted politicians. The U.S. Justice Department has won much stiffer terms for similar felonious acts by others.
The term for Nagin, who must serve at least 8½ years barring a successful appeal, falls smack in the middle of those handed to several local, state and federal elected leaders who have been convicted of similar crimes in recent years.
Among them are congressmen, governors, mayors and big-city councilmen. Like Nagin, many have refused to acknowledge wrongdoing, alleging malicious prosecution in some cases.
Others have hung their heads in public shame. A handful have engineered the kind of public comeback that few expect of Nagin when he leaves prison as a man in his mid-60s. A racketeering conviction and five years in prison didn’t stop Vincent Albert “Buddy” Cianci from recently declaring his candidacy at age 73 for another term as mayor of Providence, R.I.
Cianci, who served more than 20 years as mayor over two stretches, was caught up with eight others in a federal corruption probe dubbed “Operation Plunder Dome,” an investigation Cianci mocked before he was forced from office and convicted. After his release, he became a radio talk show host, putting the luster back on his tarnished political career.
Others have been more contrite.
Randall Howard “Duke” Cunningham, the Vietnam-era fighter pilot and former San Diego-area congressman, left federal prison in 2013, more than seven years after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery, mail fraud, tax evasion and wire fraud. He resigned in 2005 with his plea, admitting he “disgraced my office” by taking $2.4 million in bribes from contractors.
One paid him $1.6 million for a house, then sold it at a $700,000 loss in an apparent payback for defense work. Cunningham was assigned to a minimum-security facility in Arizona, then was transferred to a halfway house in New Orleans for a few months before his release.
The list goes on: ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, 28 years; Ohio county commissioner Jimmy Dimora, 28 years; former Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Donald Hill, 18 years; Blagojevich, 14 years; earlier former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, 6½ years; ex-Trenton, N.J., Mayor Tony Mack, 58 months.
And now Nagin, who told WDSU-TV Wednesday night that he chalks up his legal troubles to political enemies who “targeted,” “smeared” and “tarnished” him.
“Maybe in his mind, he’s completely convinced he didn’t do anything wrong. He may be one of the only people who think that,” said Karen Carvin, a local political strategist who, along with her late father, Jim, ran Nagin’s two mayoral campaigns before a falling out.
“Arrogance and greed will take you down every single time. Nagin was a victim of that,” Carvin said. “It crosses party lines, it crosses demographics, geographies. This is something that happens frequently with people who gain a lot of power, and sometimes they don’t stay humble.”
As recently as Tuesday, Bronx County, N.Y., Republican Party Chairman Joseph Savino, who has pleaded guilty, testified in federal court about a text message exchange with a Queens councilman, Dan Halloran, who had secured Savino a $15,000 bribe in February 2013.
“Tell me you love me,” Halloran texted, according to the testimony.
“You are my f*ing Valentine. I f*ing love you,” Savino responded, according to news accounts.
Public corruption may be common enough, but the type that Nagin is accused of is the kind the public rarely tolerates, said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
He mentioned Tammany Hall bigwig George Washington Plunkitt, who liked to distinguish between “honest” and “dishonest” graft. Honest graft, Plunkitt argued, happened when lining one’s pockets dovetailed with the public interest.
But Nagin never argued that he cut corners for the public good. During his trial, he insisted that his support for Home Depot in a fight with neighbors over the store’s Central City project was never in question, a separate matter from the deal he sought with the home improvement giant to get work for his family’s granite countertop company.
“It’s as old as the hills,” Sabato said. “This is the one type of corruption all of us can agree upon. All of us believe this is totally unacceptable in public officials. People get a lot madder about this than they do sex. When it involves money, people get it.”
Sabato said it would be tempting but unfair to cast New Orleans in a dim light based on the actions that led to Nagin’s conviction. Illinois and Louisiana, in particular, are easy targets based on their shady political histories, he said, but such political corruption is borderless.
“None of us has room to talk,” he said. “There are always public officials who yield to temptation and line their pockets.”
That Nagin’s hard fall has gained wide national attention may be in large part because of his role in responding to one of the worst disasters ever to strike the nation.
“It turned out,” Sabato said, “that (former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director) Michael Brown wasn’t the worst face of Katrina.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter,@johnsimerman.