Stephanie Grace: In the end, Nagin seemed small

The federal jury that decided Ray Nagin’s fate apparently had an easy time declaring the former New Orleans mayor guilty on 20 of 21 counts, including a wide-ranging conspiracy charge. Yet the picture that emerged from Nagin’s corruption trial wasn’t of some sort of criminal mastermind.

In fact, the evidence showed Nagin wasn’t a good criminal at all. His efforts to cover his tracks were slapdash and sloppy. As his own attorney pointed out, he dealt in traceable checks, not cash. When he solicited favors from people with business before the city, he came off as more impulsively opportunistic than coldly calculating.

And he certainly wasn’t a good witness in his own defense. He tried to charm the jury rather than paint a consistent alternate narrative. He didn’t understand that the feds knew the answers before they asked their questions, and so he walked into their traps. He acted evasive and untrustworthy when he refused to concede that signatures on documents were his, that buildings and individuals in photos were places or people he recognized. He blamed his actions on his staff, his kids, the City Council, and just about everyone but himself.

He even contradicted his own attorney, Robert Jenkins, who told jurors during both opening and closing arguments that the administration blacked out meetings with corrupt contractors on Nagin’s official calendar not to cover them up, but because the mayor and his staff didn’t like television reporter Lee Zurik, who’d requested them under the state’s public records law. Nagin testified that his city attorneys redacted the entries because they were private or privileged.

But the biggest takeaway — and perhaps the reason so many New Orleanians reacted to his downfall so strongly — is that the very qualities that made Nagin a bad criminal and witness also made him a terribly disappointing mayor.

In so many ways, the Nagin the jury met was the same Nagin who governed New Orleans.

Nagin effortlessly drifted into the job in 2002 on the strength of his personality and a focus on the popular issue of contracting reform, which, in retrospect, was more of a PR gambit than a passion. He seemed to drift into corruption the same way once he realized that he couldn’t adjust to the big pay cut he’d willingly taken — by spotting opportunities and taking the path of least resistance.

He didn’t sweat the details in office, just as he fell back on ignorance of the rules to explain his crooked acts. Nagin testified, for example, that he never meant to invoke his mayoral power when he contacted Home Depot officials to seek work for his family granite business, and also offered to help the chain kill a pesky but expensive community benefit agreement to provide well-paying jobs for workers near its new Central City store. He never acknowledged that it was his responsibility to know, or care, about the message he sent to businesses trying to locate in the city.

He proved an easy mark for charlatans and quacks with their own agendas, from recovery czar Ed Blakely to contractor Frank Fradella, who enlisted Nagin in his scheme to jack up his company’s stock price and made it well worth the mayor’s while.

And he was hapless. Just as Nagin’s grandest plans at City Hall never came to fruition, so his effort to get city contractors to salvage Stone Age, the countertop company he started with his sons, fell flat.

Did he set out to be a looter? The evidence suggests he didn’t, no more than he decided to be a bad leader when New Orleans needed him most. He just didn’t seem to be able to figure out how to do it right, whom to trust, how not to compromise himself, why the rules mattered, what was really important. Most of all, he didn’t get that the city needed his undivided attention after Hurricane Katrina, that if he wasn’t prepared to rise to the occasion, he should have gotten out of the way and let someone else do it.

In the end, he was overmatched by the situation and the job, just as he was overmatched by the government’s case against him.

In New Orleans, we’re used to strong, savvy, stubbornly willful mayors, people with outsized personalities, talents, and faults.

One of the many tragic aspects of the Nagin story is not that he loomed so large over the city, in good ways or bad. It’s that, in the end, he was so small.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.