The federal indictment of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is a tragedy for New Orleans — and for the rest of Louisiana.
Nagin, who was in office during the arrival and immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was recently indicted on 21 federal charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, bribery, money laundering and filing false tax returns while in office. Among other charges, federal prosecutors allege that Nagin accepted more than $160,000 in bribes and loads of granite for a family business in exchange for issuing millions of dollars in post-Katrina city contract work to businessman Frank Fradella.
Nagin should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty in court. In the court of public opinion, however, the tarnished image of Nagin and his administration has already complicated the Crescent City’s continuing recovery from the 2005 hurricane.
Fradella pleaded guilty in June to conspiracy to commit bribery.
Prosecutors allege that Nagin accepted at least $60,000 in payoffs from businessman Rodney Williams, who pleaded guilty last year to a charge of conspiracy. Greg Meffert, a former technology officer under Nagin, has pleaded guilty to charges he took bribes and kickbacks to steer city business to businessman Mark St. Pierre. Anthony Jones, who served as the city’s chief technology officer in Nagin’s administration, also pleaded guilty to accepting payoffs. St. Pierre was convicted in 2011 of charges that include conspiracy, bribery and money-laundering.
Given the web of corruption within Nagin’s administration that’s already been exposed, the former mayor’s indictment is not a surprise.
As champions of New Orleans fought for its survival after Katrina, cynics suggested that the city’s culture of corruption made it unworthy of aid. We strongly disagreed with that notion — and still do. We are also aware that political corruption can occur anywhere. Although public officials in New Orleans — and the rest of Louisiana — suffer from a reputation for wrongdoing, we know that Louisiana certainly has no monopoly on these kinds of abuses of the public trust.
But as the mayor of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Nagin had a special obligation to advance an administration of high ethical standards. The watchful eyes of the world on the city’s recovery demanded no less.
Regardless of legal outcome of his indictments, Nagin is already known as a mayor who presided over an administration plagued by criminal activity. In sadly affirming Louisiana’s stereotype as a haven for corruption, Nagin has already compromised the ability of future New Orleans leaders to secure outside help after future disasters. He has also frustrated the Crescent City’s efforts to attract outside investment. That’s a loss not only for New Orleans, but for residents throughout the state whose destiny is connected with the future of Louisiana’s most famous city.