Friday, August 15, 2008

"Excellence in Recovery": Party host Stewart Juneau speaks

Posted by on Fri, Aug 15, 2008 at 3:52 AM

It was a perfect storm for outrage: The very week that the mayor's office was under attack for its role in the burgeoning NOAH scandal, the entire city council was served with federal subpoenas, the FBI raided the former offices of NOAH, a formal investigation began over potential mismanagement of federal rebuilding funds, and the whole shiznit hit The New York Times...a pretty little party invitation went out.

The honoree: Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who was to be honored by a group called "The Excellence in Recovery Host Committee," which was presenting the mayor with "The Award of Distinction For Recovery, Courage, and Leadership." There didn't seem to be much (anything, frankly) about "The Excellence in Recovery Host Committee" anywhere on the Web, and, in Clancy DuBos' words in a blog reaction, it "did not exist in official, corporate form according to the Secretary of State's office." Was it a charity? A fundraiser?

The co-chairman (and name on the r.s.v.p. phone number) was French Quarter photographer Bernardo, whose website biography states "He served as personal photographer and friend to the previous Mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial and now holds the same position with the current Mayor Ray Nagin." (No one was answering the phone there.)

Food? Catering by Galatoire's, the Bombay Club, the Royal Sonesta, the Ritz-Carlton, NOLA, and other tony establishments. Entertainment: Top-flight all the way -- James Rivers and the Rebirth Brass Band.

And the guest list was the hometown equivalent of the Power Rangers. Prominent developers, politicians, lawyers, real estate moguls, religious leaders, and chefs were all on the host committee -- and the former head of Entergy and the president of the City Council were listed as its co-chairs. (Not on the host committee, interestingly: embattled "recovery czar" Ed Blakely. Wouldn't you want that guy at an event touting how well the city's recovered?)

The New Orleans blogosphere (which is, at the moment, popping like the punk scene in London circa 1977) went, predictably, nuts, because -- as anyone with eyes can see -- a good portion of post-federal-flood New Orleans is still one hot mess.

Reached by phone this afternoon, the council president and putative committee co-chair put some distance between herself and the honoree in no uncertain terms: "I am definitely disassociating myself from honoring the mayor.” (She did not, however, rule out attending the event.)

The host and co-chair for the whole shebang is Louisiana developer/samaritan Stewart Juneau, who volunteered his penthouse atop the Ritz-Carlton for all the Nagin-honoring (no one at the hotel would talk about it, nor did anyone answer the Juneau home phone this afternoon). By coincidence, I had talked to Juneau last week about an innovative lease-to-own housing program he's spearheading for the working poor on the city's West Bank (check out next week's Gambit). And the samaritan part is real; he spent an entire year working in Africa on Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela's International AIDS Project, for God's sake. So I phoned him again, and Juneau called back tonight from a trip to California to talk about "The Excellence in Recovery Host Committee" and his role in honoring Ray Nagin.

Here's what I found out:

• The event is not a fundraiser (rumors that tickets were $500 apiece are, Juneau said, absolutely untrue). It's a private party. "It's just a celebration of the recovery," he said. "After the first of the year, I really started to notice the change. I've not always been a real big supporter of the mayor, but he is the mayor of the city and some of the recovery has been wonderful."

• The event was not his idea. Juneau says he was approached by "several people," including Bernardo and developer Donald Lambert Jr. (the other event co-chair) to use his penthouse atop the Ritz-Carlton, and he agreed. "I've probably had 375 events up there, social, charitable, weddings," he told me. "The space, the view of the skyline -- I think of it as belonging to the people of New Orleans."

• What is the "Excellence in Recovery Committee"?  "I’m not that familiar with the committee," he said. "A lot of the time in these case, they’re not formal committees, just people who want to participate and help out for the event. In this case there’s a whole lot of us who want to celebrate the recovery. It's the third anniversary of Katrina, and the mayor deserves some credit. We’ve all made mistakes along the way. I want to celebrate the positive stuff."

• As for the omission of "recovery czar" Dr. Ed Blakely from the committee list (which comprises 49 people): "That has to be an oversight. I don't know. I wasn't in charge of the invitations. I remember his name did come up. I can't imagine Dr. Blakely not coming to this." (Juneau added that Blakely has been a guest in his home "probably 10 times.")

• As for Jackie Clarkson disassociating herself from honoring the mayor: "I know Jackie. I love Jackie to death. I've been at her house for events social and political. I don't know."

• Does he see the disconnect between city bigwigs gathering to honor the mayor's role in the rebuilding efforts at the exact time the NOAH investigation gets heaty? "I do, but it's the anniversary. It's our third Katrina anniversary. We just wanted an opportunity to say there's a good thing going on in New Orleans. It saddens me to put in all this energy and effort, and just...."

• Does he think Ray Nagin has demonstrated "courage and leadership in the recovery," as the award says? "I think the mayor has done a lot of great things. I think he’s made some mistakes – but I believe he is very sincere. I don't try to second-guess things that happen – once decisions have been made – I come from a military family. You support your mayor. I think that’s far better than to try to second guess."

So: the party is real, the party is on, and Juneau wants to make it clear that it's all being paid for with private funds and donations (indeed, the invitation specifies "This event is not paid for with public funds").

He concluded with the wish that I could come up and enjoy the Juneau penthouse sometime (I've heard it's pretty spectacular). So I suggested, rather brazenly, that I'd love to come to the party -- and he invited me.

I guess I better get my good halfway respectable suit pressed before next Friday...I'm off to honor the mayor.

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