Ray Nagin is 17th N.O.-area politician sentenced since Katrina

When Ray Nagin is sentenced Wednesday, he’ll become the first New Orleans mayor to face prison time for selling his office.

The punishment he’ll endure — which could be as much as two decades in prison — may be the stiffest sentence any local politician has received in a corruption case. But the spectacle of another crooked Crescent City politician being sent off to the federal pen is hardly an unusual one.

In fact, Nagin, 58, will become the 17th elected official from the city and its suburbs to be sentenced on federal corruption or fraud charges since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the region nine years ago. See graphic of officials here.

The parade of shame includes politicians at almost every level, from every parish in the metropolitan area except for St. Charles. It includes a congressman, two parish presidents, a sheriff, a coroner, a judge, an assessor, a state representative, a state senator, a school board member, four members of city councils, a parish council member and two mayors.

It’s hard to explain the crush of cases. While New Orleans, perhaps unfairly, has always been known as a place where a flexible sense of morality has never been an impediment to political success, the city has never seen such an avalanche of corruption convictions.

There’s little to tie the various cases together save for greed. Certainly, there’s little evidence to support the notion that the region’s politicians lost their collective moral compass in the wake of the storm, and some of the crimes they’ve been convicted of predate Katrina.

But some of the cases can be traced to an energized, and often outraged, citizenry that was finally fed up with the old ways. The storm — and the endless, sometimes contentious meetings that followed it — helped to create coalitions that fought to consolidate the region’s fractured levee boards, unify the city’s assessment operations and create a strong and independent inspector general’s office.

“It was life-changing,” said real estate agent Ruthie Frierson, who after the storm became the face of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, a group that mobilized to push various reforms. “There was citizen engagement like never before. What people saw (in the storm’s aftermath) was a frightful sight. And it made everyone recognize we needed change, and we needed to be engaged.”

Frierson said groups like hers made common cause with other leaders and organizations, from the Urban League and Court Watch NOLA to Women of the Storm, to demand better of the region’s politicians.

Similar impulses may also have helped bring about some of the long list of criminal prosecutions of public officials that came after Katrina, directly and indirectly.

For instance, less than two months after the storm, when St. Tammany Parish Councilman Joe Impastato tried to set himself up to receive kickbacks from the owner of a debris-staging site, the owner, Lee Mauberret, went to the feds instead of playing ball. Mauberret wore a wire, and the FBI quickly put together a case against Impastato, who eventually pleaded guilty.

Fed-up residents also called newspapers and television stations to carp about abuses by their elected officials, spawning a wave of stories that led directly to federal investigations.

Among the politicians whose undignified ends had their beginnings with news reports: Eddie Price, the former Mandeville mayor; Renee Gill Pratt, the former New Orleans City Council member and state representative; Betty Jefferson, the former assessor for the city’s 4th Municipal District; Peter Galvan, the former St. Tammany Parish coroner; and Nagin.

The role of the U.S. Attorney’s Office also can’t be overstated. Jim Letten, who was the longest-serving top prosecutor in the country when he resigned in late 2012, made his name by successfully prosecuting former Gov. Edwin Edwards. As U.S. attorney, he oversaw a probe into the contracting practices of former Mayor Marc Morial’s administration that led to the convictions of several close Morial associates.

Letten’s frequent news conferences touting indictments and convictions of politicians led some to criticize him as a publicity hound. But his focus on public corruption was undeniable, and it sent a message to the public that the feds were playing hardball.

The office, of course, has since been tarnished by the online-commenting scandal involving two of Letten’s top lieutenants that eventually prompted Letten’s own exit. But the convictions — at least those of public officials — have all stood up.

Kenneth Polite, who last year replaced Letten as U.S. attorney, has pledged he won’t let up the fight on public corruption, though he has signaled a shift in the office’s priorities, with a greater emphasis on combating violent crime. His office recently opened a grand-jury investigation into embattled longtime St. Tammany District Attorney Walter Reed.

Nagin’s sentencing, in some ways, will mark the end of the Letten legacy, though the lead prosecutors in the case, Matt Coman and Richard Pickens, have taken pains to say that neither Letten nor either of his disgraced assistants was involved in the case.

It’s almost inevitable that Nagin will draw one of the longest sentences meted out to any New Orleans-area politician brought down in the last decade. His attorney has indicated that a pre-sentence report prepared by federal probation officers calls for a sentence of 20 years at the low end. If U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan goes along with that recommendation, Nagin’s punishment would be stiffer than that imposed on former Gretna City Councilman Jonathan Bolar, now serving a 17-year sentence on extortion and other charges.

The only other local politician in the same ballpark is former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who was sentenced to 13 years on bribery charges.

Bolar, Jefferson and Nagin have one thing in common: They all professed their innocence in the face of corruption charges, rolled the dice and went to trial.

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter @gordonrussell1.