Stephanie Grace: Twenty-year Nagin sentence wouldn’t do much good

The letters of support that have filled U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan’s mailbox ahead of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s sentencing next month are nothing unusual. Pleas of mercy from those close to a convicted criminal are simply part of the process.

Still, there’s something about this case that makes me hope Berrigan will listen.

I say this not as someone who minimizes Nagin’s bad deeds.

The evidence at his public corruption trial earlier this year was clear and entirely convincing. Nagin did indeed trade on his title for personal financial gain. He did secure investments in the family granite business from contractors, accept favors and freebies from those with business before the city, thumb his nose at public records laws when the press came sniffing and much more. The jury was right. He’s guilty as charged of 20 out of 21 counts, including conspiracy.

Nor do I downplay his bad judgment and the role it played in exposing him to the possibility of 20 years in prison or perhaps even longer.

Nagin rolled the dice when he went to trial and went for full exoneration rather than pleading guilty and negotiating a lesser (but likely still substantial) sentence. At trial against a crackerjack prosecution team armed with cooperating witnesses and documents galore, neither he nor his attorney offered anything resembling an alternate interpretation of the facts. He didn’t seem to have much strategy at all beyond denying the allegations and attempting to charm the jury.

And nor do I forget for a moment his bad stewardship during New Orleans’ most trying hour.

Nobody could have anticipated the challenges that Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures would create, but when Nagin chose to seek re-election the following year, he knew the lay of the land — or should have known, anyway.

By throwing his hat in the ring and asking voters to give him a chance, he was, in effect, promising to give it his all. Yet he had little left to give and was far from up to the test. Before the election, he avoided difficult and potentially unpopular decisions. After, he proved unable to identify and recruit the best and the brightest or to devise and enact important recovery policies. At times, he showed a shocking level of detachment.

Nagin’s second term will go down largely as a lost period, full of stops and false starts. We learned during trial that it was a trying time for Nagin personally and that he spent much of the period distracted by his family’s financial woes.

That, in a way, makes his offense against his constituents worse. He not only sold out the city’s interests to bolster his own bottom line; he took his eye off the ball. I’d argue that much of the anger still directed at Nagin stems more from disappointment over his behavior in office than his attempt to get a little on the side.

Face it, even before he was indicted, his name was mud. Remember when he went on the “The Daily Show” to hawk his self-published book and described his post-City Hall vocation as disaster consultant? Remember how host Jon Stewart burst out laughing?

The Ray Nagin who will appear before Judge Berrigan next month is broken. He has no prospect of doing future harm. Nobody will put him in charge of anything again.

He’s also broke. He did bad things, but others have been more cynical and calculating and pocketed more money. Nagin was a criminal, but he was bad at that, too. He put much of his illegal gain into a failing business and emerged with little to show for it. He’s been ordered to forfeit a half-million dollars he doesn’t have, separate and apart from any restitution he’ll have to pay. His wife has declared bankruptcy, apparently to forestall foreclosure on the modest Texas townhouse where the Nagins now live.

You could say he asked for it, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Still, throwing Nagin in prison for 20 years or more feels like a pile-on. Twenty years won’t change the past or get us those four years back. And really, isn’t that what it would take to bring this sorry chapter to a satisfying close?

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter, @stephgracenola.