By CLANCY DuBOS and JOE RASPANTI
Former Mayor Ray Nagin’s federal trial on 21 public corruption charges was postponed again last week — for the third time. The former mayor is now set to stand trial on Jan. 27, 2014. If and when Nagin does go to trial — or if he pleads to a reduced charge — it will be the final chapter of Hurricane Katrina’s political arc.
Guilty or innocent, Nagin’s fate will bring closure to a city that arguably suffered as much after the storm as during it, thanks in large measure to the former mayor’s failure to implement a recovery program with any traction.
Nagin faces six counts of bribery, one count of conspiracy, one count of money laundering, nine counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns. All of those are major felonies, which means Nagin faces a lot of jail time, even if he’s convicted on just one or two counts.
Federal prosecutors often pile on charges, sometimes adding one or two “minor” counts. In addition to having evidence of multiple crimes, prosecutors use the threat of lengthy jail time to leverage guilty pleas to lesser crimes with reduced sentences. At the end of the day, a win is a win.
Earlier this week, for example, former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to steal money from the coroner’s office, which carries a maximum sentence of five years. That’s serious jail time, but it’s a lot less than Galvan might have drawn had he gone to trial facing multiple counts of public corruption.
In Nagin’s case, a conviction on all 21 counts would send him to jail for a very long time, possibly longer than the 17-plus years given to Mark St. Pierre, the former City Hall tech vendor who rolled the dice and went to trial on 53 bribery counts rather than accept a plea deal. St. Pierre was convicted on all 53 counts. Now he’s anxious to testify against Nagin, hoping it will get him a reduction in sentence.
If convicted of even one count, all of the other counts against Nagin would still factor into his sentence as “relevant conduct” under the federal sentencing guidelines. The former mayor thus faces a lengthy prison term for any conviction — and the fact that he was a public official at the time of his alleged crimes enhances his potential jail time.
Four years ago, Gov. Bobby Jindal hoodwinked lawmakers, the public and most of the Louisiana Press Association into supporting legislation that he uses to keep virtually all his administration’s records from public view. He also uses his enormous power to prevent that law from being overturned or narrowed.
The 2009 law, which Jindal cynically proclaimed a “transparency bill,” is a prime example of the old wisdom that the devil is in the details. It contains an Orwellian provision that allows anything deemed part of the governor’s “deliberative process” to remain secret. Under the law, Team Jindal gets to “deem” as liberally as it pleases.
Turns out Jindal loves to keep lots of things secret, particularly details about himself and his policies.
Since 2009, the Jindal Administration, including departments that are not even part of “the governor’s office,” have hidden behind the “deliberative process” scrim every time someone files a bothersome public records request. It’s why Jindal is widely known as the least transparent governor in America. More important, it makes it next to impossible for an average citizen, or even a news organization, to pry public information out of Louisiana’s executive branch.
Now that the feds are investigating the Jindal Administration for possible criminal violations relating to the hiring of a Maryland contractor, CNSI, to process the state’s Medicaid claims, it’s becoming clear why Bobby Jindal likes to keep things secret. Former state Health and Hospitals Secretary Bruce Greenstein, who previously worked for CNSI, pushed through changes to the bid solicitation that helped his former employer win the state contract.
Surprised? Don’t be.
Details about those rule changes, how they came about, and when, are precisely the kind of things that Team Jindal typically deems “part of the governor’s deliberative process.”
Lucky for us, that dodge doesn’t cut it with the feds. They have subpoenas. The rest of us, sadly, have to rely on Louisiana’s public records laws, which, thanks to Jindal, have been eviscerated.
That could change. State lawmakers are considering at least two bills to remove the “deliberative process” loophole. You can bet the governor will once again pull out all the stops to kill both measures — but there’s hope this year. Because Jindal is now even less popular in Louisiana than President Barack Obama, perhaps lawmakers will muster the courage to correct the grave error they committed in 2009.
In a statement that followed Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman's afternoon presser — and a stab at Mayor Mitch Landrieu — after hours of testimony over the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) consent decree, Landrieu issued the following statement to the media:
It gets clearer every day that the Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office is not keeping the prison secure and our city safe. This week, expert after expert talked about mismanagement and said this was one of the worst run jails in the country. That is why I am asking for receivership so corrections experts can run the jail in a safe, secure and fiscally responsible way. I cannot in good conscience cut vital services or raise taxes to put even more money into an office where waste, fraud, and abuse run rampant.
Last week, Landrieu warned of possible cuts, taxes and layoffs to pay for the estimated $110 million consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and OPP, on top of the city's already arranged consent decree with the New Orleans Police Department and the DOJ.
After a six-hour round of testimony in federal court over the Orleans Parish Parish consent decree, Sheriff Marlin Gusman held a brief press conference outside OPP's intake center in the shadow (and noise) of new facility construction. As he did last week following Mayor Mitch Landrieu's emergency City Council meeting on the OPP consent decree, Gusman slammed the mayor and defended the internal reforms at the sheriff's office — and addressed the content of a damning video of inmates at the now-closed House of Detention, which closed last year.
"That video from 2009 revealed in graphic detail the devastating effect of rumbling, outdated jail buildings that are lacking modern security measure," Gusman said. "The four-year-old images you saw reflect the old way of warehousing inmates. ... The actions taken in that video are unacceptable and despicable."
This week saw several bombshells in the local political arena: a Baton Rouge judge nullified the results of last November’s bridge toll referendum, and the feds dropped their years-long investigation into the River Birch landfill and its co-owners, Fred Heebe Jr. and Jim Ward. In a sense, both stories were about tolls.
Let’s take the easy part first.
No matter how you voted last November, there’s no denying the logic of Judge William Morvant’s decision to void the toll referendum’s outcome. The facts are undisputed — indeed, the state didn’t even put on a case in support of the results — and the law is clear.
At least 1,000 voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes were given “provisional” ballots that allowed them to vote only in the presidential election. Dozens of local items were on the ballot that day, including the tolls, but provisional voters could not vote in those contests. Many provisional voters were legally registered, but for some reason their names were not on the Election Day rolls. Registrars need to fix that.
Morvant correctly cited state law, which says if it’s impossible to determine the result of an election because qualified voters were denied the right to vote, a judge may nullify that election. Morvant ordered a new referendum on May 4, which happens to be the second weekend of Jazz Fest.
Suffice it to say the turnout on May 4 will be radically different than that of last Nov. 6, and that means toll supporters have an uphill fight. In politics, the easiest thing to do is kill a tax — and many see the bridge toll as a tax. Last November, toll supporters could count on the presidential election to push turnout, but on May 4 they’ll have to drag folks to the polls. They’ll raise fears of bad maintenance, less grass cutting, lights going out on the bridge and the like, but toll opponents have more motivation to turn out: they’re pissed off and they smell blood.
Which brings us to our next topic: the end of the federal River Birch investigation. The immediate reaction in many quarters was that the lengthy probe was a waste of time because it came to naught. That’s not entirely true. While the feds didn’t nab Heebe, the landfill owner bagged a passel of errant federal prosecutors by exposing Sal Perricone and Jan Mann for unprofessional, unethical and possibly illegal actions in connection with their acerbic — and petulant — online commentaries.
Will we ever get to see the The Governor's Wife? After news that the premiere of the A&E reality series following former La. governor Edwin Edwards and his 34-year-old wife Trina had been pushed from Feb. 27 to March 13, today the network announced the show won't air until sometime this summer.
According A&E's press release, the date chance is to accomodate a time slot shift by fellow Louisiana reality show Duck Dynasty, which premieres 9 p.m. local time Feb. 27.
"It was a decision made by the network," said Shaun Sanghani, The Governor's Wife creator and producer, in a Facebook message. "It is very common in the TV world for premiere dates to shift as they update and adjust their schedules."
The premiere of The Governor's Wife, the A&E reality show featuring former La. governor Edwin Edwards and his 34-year-old wife Trina has been moved to March 13, according to a Facebook post by show creator and producer Shaun Sanghani.
Sanghani's company, SSS Entertainment, was working on a show called Wanks, which would follow "the party-fueled lives of young guys and girls living on the West Bank of New Orleans, where every weekend is Mardi Gras." The show was sold to Oxygen in 2011 but the network never picked it up.
The Governor's Wife will follow "Trina as she attempts to fit into the former governor’s upscale world and busy social life while trying to get along with daughters twice her age and corral her teenage sons." The show airs at 9 p.m. local time, after fellow Louisiana-based reality show Duck Dynasty.
Was former Mayor Ray Nagin corruptible from the get-go, or did he lose his way over time in a series of small missteps that escalated into the bribery schemes alleged in the 21-count federal indictment leveled against him? Gambit contributor Stephanie Grace and political editor Clancy DuBos offer different views — but perhaps each is correct, in its own way. Read both viewpoints here:
By His Own Rules
Nearly a dozen action-packed years later, it’s a little hard to put into words just how exhilarating disgraced former mayor Ray Nagin’s breakthrough moment was, and why.
In hindsight, his casually blunt assertion that “Man, I think we need to sell that sucker” — the “sucker” being the city-owned Louis Armstrong International Airport — was a silly, impractical and poorly thought out scheme to raise up to a billion dollars for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Like so many of Nagin’s big, bold ideas, it went nowhere.
But back when Nagin first uttered those words, well into a long, bureaucratic candidate debate leading up to the 2002 mayoral election, the bleary crowd jolted awake. Strange as it now seems, that zinger, as much as anything else, helped launch the little-known cable TV executive’s improbable journey from also-ran to mayor — and now, to accused crook.
It wasn’t just that Nagin was funny and charming; he surely was both. What clicked was that he was different.
U.S. District Court Judge Helen Berrigan ordered an arraignment and initial court appearance for former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pushed back several weeks. The hearing, originally scheduled for Jan. 31, is now scheduled for Feb. 20, at 2 p.m., before federal Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan.
Last week, a federal grand jury returned a 21-count indictment against Nagin, following a lengthy investigation into allegations that the former mayor accepted bribes in return for preferable treatment from City Hall during his 2002-2010 tenure. The indictment alleges that Nagin accepted more than $200,000, as well as vacations, from local businessmen, paying them back with lucrative city contracts. He has also been charged with money laundering and filing false tax returns, both related to the alleged bribes.
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