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How Ray Nagin became the first New Orleans mayor to face bribery charges

New Orleans has a long, colorful history of corruption, but some see a post-Katrina change in attitudes with the indictment Friday of former Mayor Ray Nagin on 21 corruption and bribery charges.

A youthful Ray Nagin, a New Orleans cable executive, breezed into the mayor’s office in 2002, bent on reforming what was perceived as a corruption-plagued administration run by former Mayor Marc Morial.

Even at the outset, New Orleanians didn’t hold their breath. The fabled port city and its swampy skirt, from its inception, has been characterized, even celebrated, as a den of vice, corruption, and pay-to-play, with sinful indulgences played on a repeating loop behind the city’s Old European façade.

Indeed, instead of breaking corruption’s hold on City Hall, Nagin, who became the face of the city in the tragic aftermath of hurricane Katrina, allegedly got caught up in it. On Friday he became the first New Orleans mayor ever to face corruption charges, which consisted of 21 counts of bribery, conspiracy, money-laundering, wire fraud, and filing fake tax returns.

For many New Orleanians, the fact that a grand jury indicted Nagin for actions long-embedded in New Orleans culture and history seemed to underscore a building impatience and fading tolerance for poor governance in the wake of Katrina.

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Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who won election in 2010 on a reform and competence agenda, said Friday that “public corruption cannot and will not be tolerated.”

But the indictment also came as a bitter blow to many of the city’s majority African-American voters, who had supported Nagin in large part because of his expansive promises, including vowing that New Orleans would be rebuilt after Katrina as a “chocolate city.” African-Americans largely reelected him in 2006 despite widespread misgivings about his Katrina response and rumors about backroom shenanigans.

“Whether he was really committed to the interests of common black folks or just woofing is a matter for debate,” writes New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry. “But one thing was clear even before Friday morning’s [indictment]: He did not bring honesty to Perdido Street.

“There’s no need to feel ashamed,” Mr. DeBerry continues. “Yes, embarrassed and angry that yet another politician has allegedly contributed to the city’s roguish reputation. But not ashamed.… We weren’t the accomplices, we were the victims.”

The mayor’s once-soaring popularity plummeted amid a bogged down hurricane recovery, and as it became clear that many of his big ideas for the city had foundered. Yet when facing reelection in 2006, Nagin, the grand jury alleges, began doing favors for businessmen in exchange for bribes and political support. One such deal was orchestrated with a building supplies company, where Nagin is alleged to have helped kill a proposed requirement for the company to hire local workers at higher wages in return for the company buying granite from Nagin’s family.

Past New Orleans mayors may have barely escaped trading in their mayoral terms for jail terms, but the city has seen a city councilor, school board members, a congressman, and even a governor all convicted on corruption charges in the last 15 years.

In the end, however, the sum of Nagin’s mayoral failures and alleged backroom deals just became too blatant and public for authorities to ignore.

The indictments are heavily linked to a reelection deal in 2006 where Nagin allegedly turned to his technology officer, Greg Meffert, and a business associate, Mark St. Pierre, for help raising money in return for no-bid contracts on city technology services. Unfortunately, those included a massive $10 million street camera project that became the laughing stock of the city for its uselessness, and which Mayor Landrieu junked upon taking office.

The basics of the alleged scheme involved city vendors setting Nagin up with vacations and cash in return for city contracts, as well as political help in tamping down community opposition to various projects. Nagin’s largesse, the indictments suggest, even extended to forgiving tax penalties in exchange for bribes.

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For many, a widespread sense of buyer’s remorse going back to the 2006 election — when Nagin defeated Landrieu —  was partially vindicated by the grand jury indictments on Friday.

“Had Mitch Landrieu taken over four years earlier, he would undoubtedly have taken aim at the den of thieves that passed for an IT department at City Hall,” writes columnist Jeff Gill. “Instead Meffert and St. Pierre went on pocketing the loot.”

After several newspaper investigations and after Nagin decamped New Orleans for Texas, few were surprised at Friday’s indictments, especially after it had become clear that “Public Official A” cited in other corruption indictments against two technology officers and two business men referred to Nagin. The former mayor will be arraigned Jan. 31. He faces up to 15 years in federal prison if found guilty.