Our Views: A mayor for himself

When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was spending a lot of his time padding his bank account, thousands of New Orleanians were stuck in FEMA trailers, or bunking a dozen to a house with relatives in Baton Rouge or Houston or Atlanta, or working into the night repairing flooded houses.

They have a right to feel betrayed by their mayor.

His conviction on 20 counts of bribery and fraud showed a mayor out to use his office for private gain.

When New Orleanians needed the best mayor that Ray Nagin could be, they got a man spending hours on himself.

It’s not just the violations of the law, but the damning portrait of a long series of meetings and phone calls that were devoted not to the suffering of the people of New Orleans but the concerns of city vendors who just happened to be investors, as he put it, in Stone Age, the family granite business. There was a series of festive family meals charged to the city, after he’d laid off thousands of employees. He offered to help Home Depot avoid city obligations to workers at the new Central City store in exchange for city concessions, just as he was begging company officials to send installation jobs in Stone Age’s direction.

Avarice is as old as humanity, and $130,000 a year was clearly not enough to sustain the lifestyle that Nagin wanted from the beginning of his terms in public office. The pre-Katrina dealings unveiled in U.S. District Court suggest that the financial pressures on Nagin were not a consequence of the devastating storms of 2005.

What is infuriating is that the crisis of Katrina and Rita that year did not call him to sacrifice for the city that had taken him from complete political obscurity to make him mayor.

Instead, the jury in U.S. District Court saw emails and appointment books filled with time spent on contract-fixing and payments that he implausibly construed before the jury as gifts from acquaintances, who just happened to be dealing with the city all the time.

Many of them sang to prosecutors when they were caught, and Nagin’s defense assailed their integrity. But the mayor’s precarious personal finances of the time were on display in the record, and the jury was obviously not convinced that the mayor’s excuse of inattention to details could have accounted for $500,000 in kickbacks and “gifts.”

If Nagin is the first mayor of New Orleans to be convicted of an official crime, he is hardly the first public official in Louisiana to face this kind of verdict. Perhaps some will latch onto this as another example of the old style of Louisiana corruption, but such cases are not unique to Louisiana. We applaud the federal prosecutors for their investigation and for the thoroughness of their case, obviously quite convincing to the jury.

If there is a larger lesson in this tawdry story, it is about the people Nagin was supposed to be leading at a historic and tragic juncture, those people scattered by the winds of Katrina and flooded out of their homes when the levees failed, those whose possessions and lifestyles were far more modest than the mayor’s.

That community and those across the state and the South who took them in acted far more nobly, and the recovery of the city of New Orleans since 2005 is a tribute to their goodness and grit in the face of horrendous hardships.

The people and the city were better than their leader. By far.