A dozen years after he swept into City Hall in a landslide, buoyed by optimistic voters who warmed to his promise of creating a new civic culture, Ray Nagin will report to prison Monday to begin serving a 10-year sentence for selling New Orleans’ highest office.
He apparently will be marking his time in a minimum-security camp in Texarkana, Texas, about three hours’ drive from the Dallas suburb of Frisco, where the Nagin family moved not long after he left the Mayor’s Office in May 2010.
The Bureau of Prisons would not confirm his assignment Friday, but WDSU-TV, where Nagin’s former attorney is a legal analyst, has reported that Texarkana will be the former mayor’s new home.
It would be hard to overstate how far Nagin, now 58, has fallen since the heady days of late 2001, when he took a leave from his job as general manager of Cox Cable, where he earned a $400,000 salary and had an expense account to match, to stage an improbable run for mayor. He led a crowded field of seasoned politicos in the primary and trounced Police Superintendent Richard Pennington in the runoff, taking 59 percent of the vote.
These days, he is nearly penniless and apparently unemployable; he wrote in a recent affidavit that he hasn’t worked since leaving the Mayor’s Office.
That same affidavit said he had less than $25 in the family checking account and was depending in large part on the kindness of family and friends to put food on the table. The modest townhome in a cookie-cutter subdivision where the Nagins have lived for the past few years is in foreclosure.
Nagin’s decision to run for office — which the first-time candidate said was driven by a zeal to improve New Orleans’ economic climate so his children would be able to live and work in the city as adults — could not have been a more momentous one.
In 2005, of course, it meant that the still-unseasoned politician was thrust into the unlikely role of chief executive of a battered American city whose very existence was in peril. Overnight, Nagin was grappling with overwhelming decisions, from how to rescue and evacuate citizens to how best to rebuild the city.
But Nagin’s ascent to the Mayor’s Office had more personal consequences for his family well before Hurricane Katrina loomed.
Testimony at Nagin’s trial revealed that by 2004, the mayor was finding it difficult to make ends meet on his city salary of about $130,000, and he began hitting up his friend and confidant David White for monthly “loans” of several thousand dollars that he never repaid.
Those payments broke no laws. But White eventually cut off the largess, and after Katrina, the mayor’s grasping got more desperate. He began using a city credit card as a personal ATM, paying for family meals, vacations and shopping sprees with taxpayer money. Worse, he took gifts and cash from at least four city vendors in exchange for official favors, and he pressured Home Depot to steer lucrative work to his family’s granite countertop business as the retailer was working out tax breaks and the purchase of streets from the city for a new store.
When he arrives in Texarkana, Nagin, who has been living in what amounts to house arrest since his conviction, will lose the little bit of freedom he has remaining. He’ll be strip-searched, given an orientation and then assigned sleeping and living quarters.
He’ll also go back to work. Job options are likely to include food service, landscaping, maintenance, air conditioning and clerical work, according to Bureau of Prisons officials.
The pay will be a pittance compared with what Nagin once made. At Cox, his salary worked out to about $7,500 a week. Given that starter jobs within the Bureau of Prisons generally pay between 12 cents and $1.15 an hour, it may take him half his 10-year term to earn what he then made in a week.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.