Former Official Who Led City During Hurricane Katrina, Convicted of Trading City Business for Cash,
By Cameron McWhirter
NEW ORLEANS— Ray Nagin, the former mayor who rose to national prominence leading this city during Hurricane Katrina, was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in federal prison for his participation in a $500,000 bribery and conspiracy scheme that operated during most of his time in office.
U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan told a packed courtroom that Mr. Nagin, 58 years old, was guilty of “rampant, inexcusable corruption,” but she ruled that his sentence should be shorter than the federal guidelines of a minimum of more than 15½ years because he was a devoted family man, had at times been a good mayor and wouldn’t hold office again.
She released Mr. Nagin on bond and ordered him to report to a federal prison in Oakdale, La., on Sept. 8. As part of his sentence, Mr. Nagin also must pay $84,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.
A federal jury in February convicted Mr. Nagin, a Democrat who was mayor from 2002 until 2010, of 20 counts including bribery, conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns following a trial in which prosecutors accused Mr. Nagin of trading city business for cash, trips and favors. Several contractors and Nagin administration officials also have been convicted or have pleaded guilty in the public-corruption scandal.
Mr. Nagin, his voice cracking, didn’t acknowledge guilt after receiving his sentence, but told the court, “I trust God is going to work all this out.” Family members and supporters hugged him and cried as he left the courtroom.
The relatively short sentence sparked criticism from prosecutors and members of the public who felt Mr. Nagin profited from New Orleans’ distress in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, squandering an opportunity to rid the city of its long-standing reputation for corruption.
Mr. Nagin’s crimes were “incalculable,” and the sentence should have been stiffer, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman said at the sentencing.
New Orleans residents have been fixated on Mr. Nagin’s case.
A 10-year sentence is “a rip off,” said Donald Scherer, a 41 year-old employee of Tulane University who has lived in the city most of his life.
The hurricane was an opportunity to rebuild New Orleans, free of corruption, and Mr. Nagin needed to be a strong leader, Mr. Scherer said, sitting near the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where thousands were stranded during Katrina. “We thought, maybe this is a chance to wash away all the bad stuff,” he said. “Instead, there was more money coming in so there was more to steal.”
Mr. Nagin made emotional appeals to the nation for help, but then abused his office for his own gain, Mr. Scherer said. “That’s about as bad as you can get.”
Dane Ciolino, who teaches criminal law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, said: “It’s nothing new to the citizens of New Orleans. You always think this will be the last. Then another one comes.”
Wednesday’s sentencing marks an ignominious nadir for Mr. Nagin, who had never held public office before being elected mayor in 2002. An executive for Cox Communications Inc., a cable company, Mr. Nagin ran on a platform of stamping out public corruption.
“I didn’t buy his spiel then…Now he’s worse than the ones who came before him,” said Lorraine Washington, a 58-year-old lifelong New Orleans resident. She said Mr. Nagin’s sentence was about right, but added, “I don’t have any pity for him.”
Mr. Nagin became a national figure in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city. Hundreds of people died and tens of thousands were stranded. Mr. Nagin publicly criticized the federal response to the disaster.
Mr. Nagin was re-elected in 2006, but residents grew frustrated with restoration efforts and several administration scandals in his second term. Term limits prohibited him from seeking a third term and he left office in 2010.
The federal case grew out of a probe into city contractors and Mr. Nagin’s administration that began shortly after the hurricane, and looked into alleged wrongdoing from 2004 to 2010. Mr. Nagin was indicted in January 2013.
During the trial this year, prosecutors presented testimony from more than a dozen contractors, city officials and investigators who detailed a series of alleged payoffs involving Mr. Nagin and the granite-countertop business he formed with his sons, Stone Age LLC. His sons weren’t charged.
Write to Cameron McWhirter at firstname.lastname@example.org