Prison now awaits Nagin

judge GIVES NAGIN lenient sentence; fed prosecutors consider appeal

Former Mayor Ray Nagin was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan on Wednesday, completing a roller-coaster political and personal story that began with his meteoric ascent to the city’s highest office a dozen years ago and bottomed out with his conviction in February on 20 counts of bribery and wire fraud.

The sentence was much more lenient than the 15- to 20-year term called for in federal guidelines.

Nagin steered New Orleans’ uncertain course after the disastrous levee breaches in the wake of Hurricane Katrina resulted in the flooding of more than 80 percent of the city in 2005. While the crucible of the storm’s aftermath would test any politician, Nagin’s laissez-faire leadership style came under heavy fire, and he left office in May 2010 with abysmally low approval ratings.

Now, he is the first New Orleans mayor to face time in prison for corruption. Nagin will be required to relinquish his freedom on Sept. 8, when he will begin a very different life behind bars.

“Corruption breeds public cynicism, nowhere more than New Orleans, where the perception of the city as a hub of corruption persists,” Berrigan said before imposing her sentence. “The seriousness of Mr. Nagin’s offenses can hardly be overstated.”

Still, the sentence Nagin received was shorter than the punishments handed down to some other crooked local politicians, such as disgraced former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who is serving a 13-year term, and former Gretna City Councilman Jonathan Bolar, who is early into a 17-year term.

Nagin, sporting a mostly gray beard and a brightly colored tie, made a very brief speech before Berrigan meted out his punishment. His voice cracking slightly, he thanked Berrigan and her staff for their “professionalism and kindness.”

As is her habit, Berrigan entered the courtroom about 10 minutes before the proceedings began, clad in a bright aqua blazer rather than a judge’s black robe, and shook hands with many of those in the courtroom, including all of Nagin’s relatives. She reappeared in her robe minutes later.

Nagin told the judge, “As far as my role in this, I stand by the memos and testimonies” that are part of the court record in the case. “I trust that God is going to work all of this out.”

In an interview with WDSU-TV later Wednesday, Nagin was unrepentant, saying prosecutors twisted facts to meet their theory of the case and suggesting he had been targeted by authorities because of unpopular positions he took after the storm.

“In my opinion, I’ve been targeted, I’ve been smeared, tarnished,” he said. “For some reason, some of the stances that I took after Katrina didn’t sit well with some very powerful people. So now I’m paying a price for that.”

While Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, wrote in an earlier court filing that a pre-sentence report prepared by federal probation officers called for a sentence of 20 years in prison at the low end, the report actually called for a range of 15 ½ to 19 ½ years, a finding Berrigan agreed with and adopted.

While prosecutors argued that Nagin played a leadership role in a conspiracy involving five or more people — a finding that would have added several years to the sentencing recommendation — Berrigan agreed with the probation report, which did not make such a finding.

Eager bribers

In fact, Berrigan said, those accused of paying off Nagin were “eager and willing to pay bribes to get extremely lucrative contracts with the city of New Orleans.”

She said at least two co-conspirators, former city Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert and businessman Frank Fradella, had both approached Nagin with graft in mind, rather than the other way around. She added that “Mr. Nagin claimed a much smaller share of the profits of this conspiracy than any of the other members,” several of whom made millions.

Berrigan did add “points” to Nagin’s offense level, which dictates the ultimate sentence, due to his obstruction of justice. Jenkins had argued against such a finding. But the judge said Nagin lied to the FBI in an initial interview, provided a redacted public calendar to the media and tried to hide evidence from the state Ethics Board. She said he also lied repeatedly on the witness stand.

After discussing those gray areas, Berrigan told the court she planned to mete out a more lenient sentence based on several factors, including the mayor’s age and the remote possibility that he will ever be able to violate the public trust again.

While unsparing in her criticism of the former mayor, Berrigan said she thought the sentencing range dictated by the guidelines was unduly harsh, and that it is a judge’s job to weigh the guidelines against the interests of justice.

“I must make an independent assessment of the case, no matter how highly publicized and divisive the case might be,” she said.

At 58, she said, Nagin is older than most of the defendants the guidelines aim to deter from future criminal activity. Also, she said, his “reputation and credibility have been almost irreparably harmed.”

Further, Berrigan said, she doesn’t believe Nagin’s crimes were completely motivated by selfishness. She said they were in part the result of a “deeply misguided desire to provide for those closest to him.” Without praising his tenure as mayor, she said Nagin often “displayed a commitment to helping the citizens” of New Orleans.

Berrigan recommended Nagin serve his sentence at the federal prison in Oakdale to make it easier for his family, now residing in Frisco, Texas, to visit him. The ultimate decision on where he’ll serve his sentence is up to the federal Bureau of Prisons, though judges’ recommendations are often taken into account.

Jenkins said in an interview with WWL-AM Wednesday afternoon that he was very pleased with the judge’s ruling, adding that he thought Nagin would be staring down a much longer sentence. He also said he plans to file an appeal shortly, and said he thinks Nagin has an “excellent shot” at a new trial. Jenkins would not specify on what grounds he intends to appeal, but both he and Nagin continue to point to misconduct in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Berrigan rejected pre-trial motions by Jenkins to have Nagin’s case thrown out on those grounds.

Prosecutors’ objection

Prosecutors lodged an immediate objection to the sentence Berrigan imposed. In brief remarks outside the courthouse, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman said the decision on whether to appeal the sentence will be up to the U.S. solicitor general.

In brief remarks outside the courthouse, Coman said the sentence was “a very significant, strong sentence, a strong message” signaling that corruption won’t be tolerated. His comments were interrupted repeatedly by activist Dyan “Mama D” French-Cole, who shouted over him that prosecutors involved in the commenting scandal, rather than Nagin, should be packed off to prison.

While federal sentencing guidelines are considered advisory rather than mandatory, judges have limited discretion in departing from them. They must give their reasons for doing so, and appeals courts sometimes strike down sentences that are well outside the recommended range. Berrigan gave Nagin a sentence that was 36 percent shorter than the minimum called for by the guidelines as she calculated them.

“I don’t think she could have gone any lower,” veteran defense lawyer Pat Fanning said. “I think the gauge was (former Gov.) Edwin Edwards, who went to trial twice before he finally got convicted. He was involved in multiple conspiracies, and he was governor for 16 years. And he only got 10 years. So how can you justify giving Nagin more than 10?”

That said, Fanning added that, should the government appeal, the conservative U.S. 5th District Court of Appeals could well overturn the sentence.

Federal prisoners by law must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences before they can be released, meaning Nagin could get out of prison sometime in 2022, when he’ll be 66.

Berrigan also ordered Nagin to pay an additional $84,264 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service, based on his conviction on multiple counts of filing false tax returns.

The judge had already ordered the former mayor to forfeit $501,201 to the federal government, which is the amount of “ill-gotten gains” he was found to have received in the bribery scheme. He will be required to pay the restitution at a rate of $500 per month, whereas the government has the right to seize and sell his assets to settle the forfeiture. However, the recent bankruptcy filing by Nagin’s wife, Seletha, may delay when the government can collect.

Filings from the bankruptcy case show a family in the throes of financial ruin and dependent on government and family assistance to get by. The Nagins owe almost $42,840 in back taxes to the IRS, and they have more than $180,400 in outstanding loans or other debts, including the mortgage on their Texas home.

Seletha Nagin reported in court documents that she is working as a clerk at Bath and Body Works in Frisco for about $490 a month. The former mayor is listed as “not employed.” The Nagins are also receiving food stamps, which provide $312 a month, as well as about $400 a month from their sons Jeremy and Jarin, who were partners with their father in the family granite business and unindicted co-conspirators in his corruption case.

Improbable career

Nagin’s improbable political career began in late 2001, when he joined a crowded field of candidates vying to replace then-Mayor Marc Morial. A political neophyte who was serving as general manager of the local Cox Communications cable-television monopoly, he galvanized New Orleanians with promises to rid City Hall of cronyism and bring modern business principles to government.

But chinks in his reformist armor appeared early, notably when he backed out of a pledge, before the election was even over, to outsource the awarding of no-bid contracts to panels of experts in various fields. He then launched a highly visible corruption crackdown a few months after taking office, with the illegal sale of taxi permits serving as the jumping-off point. Dozens of taxi drivers and a handful of bureaucrats and inspectors were arrested, some while television cameras were rolling, and he promised it was just the start.

The campaign fizzled, however, with just a couple of prosecutions and many cases falling apart for lack of evidence. The bigger fish he had promised to catch never materialized.

Still, Nagin set a different tone for City Hall than his predecessor, and early on, he showed little favoritism to supporters and sought to end or renegotiate some of the sweetheart deals handed out by Morial.

The Nagin administration’s first real patronage scandal involved the Mayor’s Office of Technology, a unit Nagin had created upon arriving at City Hall to modernize the city’s outdated computer systems and other technology. To lead the department, he hired Meffert, who had launched a successful tech startup. Meffert essentially outsourced the work of the office to a group of friends and former employees led by Mark St. Pierre, who was paid under a large no-bid contract.

Among the jobs Meffert gave to that group was the creation of a citywide network of crime cameras, touted as a 21st century solution to the city’s intractable and skyrocketing murder rate. The program was an unmitigated disaster that cost millions of dollars but resulted in little if any evidence used in criminal prosecutions.

A jilted vendor

A lawsuit filed by a jilted vendor in the crime-camera program began to unravel the mess. Meffert, it turned out, was getting money and the use of a credit card from St. Pierre, and both were indicted in late 2009, just a few months before Nagin exited City Hall.

By then it emerged that Nagin, too, had been the beneficiary of gifts and goodies provided by St. Pierre, including cellphone service for his two sons and a family trip to Maui taken not long after Nagin signed an executive order decreeing that technology contracts did not have to be bid competitively.

During his second term, Nagin struggled to make difficult decisions — waffling for months, for instance, on the fundamental question of whether all of the city’s neighborhoods should be repopulated after the storm. Having helped set that divisive debate into motion, he then delivered a controversial address on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 2006 in which he decreed that New Orleans would be “chocolate at the end of the day” and implied that white New Orleanians were wishing it otherwise.

After his 2006 re-election, a contest that was much more racially divisive than his first win, Nagin often seemed disengaged, and sometimes bitter. As his federal trial revealed, he was also struggling with his personal finances at the time — in particular, with the fortunes of Stone Age LLC, the granite company he and his sons had founded just before the storm.

While Katrina theoretically presented a bonanza for a granite countertop firm, the company never really took off, and Nagin resorted to questionable and sometimes corrupt practices to prop it up. News reports in 2008 revealed he had landed Stone Age a potentially lucrative installation deal with Home Depot even as the retailer was negotiating for tax breaks with the city and was seeking to avoid signing a contract requiring the company to employ neighboring residents of its planned Central City store at certain hourly wages.

Stench of corruption

By the time Nagin left office in 2010, the sour stench of corruption hung over his administration, with scandals rocking the Sewerage & Water Board; New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, a city-backed nonprofit that Nagin had charged with remediating post-Katrina blight; and the Mayor’s Office of Technology.

The Home Depot deal would form part of the indictment that federal prosecutors unfurled in January 2013. But there was a good deal more, much of it involving Stone Age. Nagin was also accused of shaking down general contractor Frank Fradella and engineering consultant Rodney Williams in exchange for helping them secure city work for their firms. The bribes they paid — in the form of cash and two truckloads of free granite — went to Stone Age.

Fradella, Williams and Meffert were among the star witnesses in the government’s case against Nagin. Nagin and Jenkins sought to portray them as self-interested criminals looking to reduce their own exposure by bolstering the prosecution’s case, but their stories were remarkably consistent, as were those of Home Depot officials who spoke of their discomfort with Nagin’s repeated overtures.

While Fradella and Meffert had their own crimes to answer for outside of their dealings with Nagin — Fradella has admitted overseeing a stock-price manipulation scheme — Williams was accused of no crime save for bribing Nagin.

A jury had little trouble coming to a verdict, convicting the former mayor on 20 of 21 charges after deliberating for just over six hours. After the verdict, the normally voluble Nagin had little to say. “I maintain my innocence,” he said then.

Nagin was even more quiet when he left the courthouse Wednesday morning, saying nothing to a throng of reporters as he stepped into a waiting SUV on Poydras Street.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu also was restrained, issuing a prepared statement that said only: “Today marks the end of a sad chapter for our city. The people of New Orleans are turning the page and moving forward.”

Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter @gordonrussell1.