The duties of a “cultural ambassador” are hard to define, but presumably Irvin Mayfield, when then-Mayor Ray Nagin gave him that title in 2003, was thought to embody the spirit of New Orleans.

In the immediate aftermath of Katrina two years later, wild and often preposterous reports of looting and thuggery did enormous damage to what Nagin liked to call our “brand,” while enough relief money then poured in to bring the fraudsters out in force.

These developments, coupled with our long-established reputation for political corruption, may have caused the rest of the country to view us with suspicion after the storm, but the future looked brighter.

Nagin, as he hobnobbed with such worthies as President George W. Bush and Britain's Prince Charles, was still playing the reformist and straight newcomer to public office. And there was Mayfield to trumpet New Orleans' seminal contribution to modern culture.

Alas, although his jazz credentials remain above reproach, it turns out that Mayfield may have been an even better fit as representative of that other New Orleans culture, with its seamy traditions of defalcation and self dealing. Nagin's been in the federal pen since 2014, and it seems almost certain that Mayfield, together with his buddy Ronald Markham, will soon be on the way there too.

Markham and Mayfield have much more in common than an alleged fondness for living large on misappropriated money. They ran the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for years, and Markham spent some time as a volunteer in the Fleur de Lis Ambassador program, formed after Katrina by Tulane and the City Council to spread the word nationwide about the city's “economic and cultural revitalization.” It is likely that the local arts scene remains a favorite topic when Markham gets home too, for his wife is Miranda Restovic, head of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

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There was widespread shock in 2014 when Nagin got 10 years in the federal pen; he was such a crook that a sentence maybe twice that long seemed likely. Mayfield, meanwhile, was still riding high in public esteem, but, deprived of his benefactor in City Hall, he had been forced to find another source of subsidies for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. He and Markham, according to an indictment handed up last week, were able to plug the hole by stealing money with which they were entrusted to support the city's public libraries.

Over 18 months, starting in August 2011, Mayfield and Markham allegedly pocketed about $1.4 million, more than a third of the total on hand, and were no doubt highly amused at the failure of the other three members of the city's Library Foundation Board to see what was going on.

Mayfield and Markham, according to the indictment, “prepared materially false and misleading” documents to cover their tracks, but there is no denying that Dan Forman, Gerald Duhon and Scott Cunningham were about as much use as three blind mice in performing their fiduciary duties. They practically invited Mayfield to steal the money by changing the bylaws to give him absolute discretion in spending it.

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The whole mess started, however, with the impulsive and reckless policies of the Nagin mayoralty. Having named Mayfield cultural ambassador, he put him in charge of the libraries apparently on the theory that, for a man who can blow a mean horn, books are no challenge. Meanwhile, Nagin kept the NOJO afloat with grants from a trust called the Edward Wisner Donation.

When Mitch Landrieu took over, he put the kibosh on that, so Mayfield and Markham were soon transferring regular sums from the Library Foundation to cover their $100,000 salaries and not inconsiderable expenses at NOJO.

Mayfield, who presumably makes a few bucks as a Grammy-winning musician, is not the most obvious candidate for a public defender, but he has one in the person of Claude Kelly, who says Mayfield “had a vision to educate all the children of New Orleans” and not just the rich white ones uptown. Kelly does not explain how Mayfield advanced that cause by sticking the Foundation with his $18,000 bill for a week in a New York hotel, and spending $1,400 in library donations just on breakfast, but he suggest that prosecutors are mean to bring an indictment at Christmas.

Mayfield and Markham appear to have had a jolly Christmas in 2011. One of the fraudulent transfers listed in the indictment, for $100,000, occurred Dec. 28 that year.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.

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