Ex-New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin convicted of taking bribes

5:38 PM, Feb 12, 2014   |    comments
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Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin



(USA TODAY) -- The former mayor of New Orleans - once the public face of a city battered by Hurricane Katrina - could be headed to prison.

A jury has just returned guilty verdicts on 20 of the 21 counts of corruption and bribery that Ray Nagin faced in a nine-day trial.

Barring a favorable appeal, Nagin, 57, could be sentenced to as much as two decades in a federal penitentiary. Prosecutors used 26 witnesses and reams of documents to detail how Nagin accepted more than $500,000 in payouts, including first-class trips to Jamaica and Manhattan, in exchange for millions of dollars in city contracts.

Nagin's spectacular plunge from upstart politician and post-storm persona to convicted felon is more than just another case study in public service gone awry. American history - Louisiana's in particular - is littered with similar cases of politicians on the take.

What makes Nagin's case unique is that it occurred amid one of the worst catastrophes to hit a U.S. city. The floods unleashed by faulty federal levees in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005, led to the deaths of 1,800 people across the Gulf Coast, caused a record-breaking $135 billion in damage and devastated New Orleans.

The city emptied. Its economy flat-lined. People questioned whether the city that gave us jazz and crawfish etouffee would ever return.

It was a pivotal moment in New Orleans and U.S. history. And at the city's helm was Nagin.

Prosecutors say Nagin's personal-enrichment schemes at City Hall began before Katrina hit, continued through the storm's bumpy aftermath and persevered through his second term and even beyond. As people dug out from under the rubble and wrestled with how to rebuild their city, Nagin was soliciting large checks for himself and his sons' granite countertop business from those wishing to do business with the city.

Early in the storm's aftermath, Nagin showed signs of becoming the leader the city needed, admonishing the federal government for its slow response and giving impassioned national TV interviews. But he quickly began to retreat. As the hard road to recovery stretched into weeks, then months and years, Nagin was seen less and less. The mayor's vision for a new New Orleans was nowhere to be had. He was out of town a lot. Prosecutors showed that many of those trips - to New York City, Las Vegas and Jamaica - were funded by businessmen hoping to land big contracts with the city.

Clancy DuBos, political editor of the weekly alternative newspaper Gambit, says he initially defended Nagin. Katrina was a mammoth event, he said, capable of crumbling the strongest resolve. But he quickly realized Nagin would shrink from rather than shoulder the enormous task at hand. "He did not enjoy the work of being mayor," DuBos says. "He only enjoyed being the mayor."

Still, the citizens of New Orleans held onto the widespread belief that Nagin was incorruptible. "At least he's not on the take" was an oft-repeated adage during the recovery years, even as neighbors struggled to rebuild homes and repopulate neighborhoods.

Grass-roots groups sprouted throughout the city, filling voids left by a mayor's lack of vision and participation. But Nagin's reputation as an upright official persisted and made the hard work for rebuilding somewhat more palpable.

All that changed today, when a jury decided Nagin would be the first mayor in the city's 296-year history to be convicted of corruption.

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