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.
The Saenger Theatre opened its doors today for the first time since Hurricane Katrina closed the Canal Street landmark in 2005. Under new twinkling fiber optic ceiling stars — part of a $52 million renovation — Mayor Mitch Landrieu proclaimed the project a symbol “of resurrection, redemption, resilience, of building the city not back the way she was but the way she should have always been.”
The Saenger was built in 1927 and the team of public-private entities responsible for its renovation, including the Canal Street Development Corporation, Ace Theatrical Group and the City of New Orleans, restored the building to reflect the original, with modern accoutrements like an expanded stage. The inside is complete with the dashing red carpet reminiscent of the original, and everything from the chandeliers to the paint scheme was researched for historical accuracy and constructed to reflect the building’s original interior. “All of the work that you see here is a reincarnation of the original designs and the original paintings,” Landrieu said.
The Saenger will host a slew of Broadway shows, musical, comedic and stage acts, including a grand opening performance by Kristin Chenoweth and the Louisiana Philharmonic Oct. 5. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld performs three shows during this weekend’s soft opening. New Orleans is the third largest producer of Hollywood films, behind New York and Los Angeles, thanks to film credits offered by the state and will have an originating tax credit for Broadway productions as well, Landrieu said, “because, in order for this thing to work, these seats have to be full, and the productions have to be great.”
Broadway Across America President Lauren Reid said “New Orleans will now be a destination for Broadway’s best and brightest.”
Though the opening is one of the most anticipated post-Katrina rebuilding efforts and a linchpin of the Canal Street corridor rehabilitation, Landrieu said “there’s other stuff going on. This is not the only thing that’s happening as you think about what is occurring just in this general space, in these two square miles. You have the VA and UMC hospitals, $2 million coming out of the ground as we speak.”
New Orleans City Council President Jackie Clarkson was in the Saenger for her fifth birthday, before World War II. “Thanks for the memories,” she said. “Many a tale has been woven in this edifice.”
After dozens of stakeholders squeezed behind a gold ribbon for a photo-op, the curtains of the Saenger opened to display its historic SAENGER letters, lighted and floating on the newly revealed stage. “You have this before you today,” Landrieu said. “It’s a gift to the people of the city of New Orleans.”
Who do you think was more responsible for the poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W. Bush or Barack Obama?
George W. Bush
Hucklebuck: A frozen treat made of flavored syrup and water. Also known as a huckabuck, frozen cup, iceberg, cool cup or cold cup.
“No, not anymore,” she responds, a hint of longing in her voice. As I hang my head a little, feeling embarrassed for even asking the question, she shouts, “Well, there might be a lady by the park, but I don’t know.”
I thank her and skip toward my car, hearing a dog bark and thinking about how I called Hope Street "Dog Street" when I was a girl, since there were so many vicious-looking dogs there.
I quickly realize a tan pit bull is chasing me. The nice things I’ve read about pit bulls from their advocates leave my mind and are replaced with 6-year-old Megan’s memory of Uncle Bobby Sardie’s German Shepard leaping up and biting his hand, getting blood everywhere on Easter morning.
“Get it away from me!” I shout repeatedly, wishing I would have just walked to my car instead of skipping there. Thankfully, the dog’s owner calls it back to herself and away from me.
Safely in my car, I begin to wonder if my search will be fruitless. I see a man around my age and ask him the status of hucklebuck ladies in the 7th Ward. He confirms their absence. I turn down New Orleans Street, thinking of the hucklebuck ladies around Hardin Park I knew growing up, like Miss Thibodeaux who always had double- and triple-color ones. Perhaps hucklebuck ladies are casualties of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods or maybe of 9/11.
"I am really down about the way the President has been attacked," Bush writes in a 2005 letter to journalist and long-time friend Hugh Sidey about the criticism directed at his son for the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. "Over and over again the networks attack him. First for being late in moving. Then for over flying Louisiana on the way back to Washington. Then on the snail like pace of relief."
Bush went on to say "My heart went out to him. Here is a guy who cares deeply. Who wants every possible resource of the Federal Government brought in to bear to help people, yet he is being roundly accused of not giving a damn...the critics do not know what is in 43's heart, how deeply he feels about the hurt, the anguish, the losses affecting so many people, most of them poor."
The senior Bush goes on to compare the criticism of his son with his own experiences being shot down by Japanese forces during his time in the U.S. Navy, and concludes, ""Now I see some of his most nasty critics trying to shoot down my beloved son — shoot him down by mean-spirited attacks. I was a scared kid back then. Now I am just an angry old man hurting for my son."
In other Bush family news, the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum (known as Bush Center) will be unveiled next month at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Raindrops filled a few puddles inside the shell of Circle Food Store, the iconic domed Treme grocery store and community space, which has stood empty since the 2005 floods when 5 feet of water filled the landmark. It first opened in 1939 as the first African-American-owned grocery store in New Orleans. Today, city officials and owner Dwayne Boudreaux held a ceremonial groundbreaking and announced the store's reopening in summer 2013.
"This was an iconic place for so many of us. It was the hub of the 7th Ward," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu. "There are very few symbols of what New Orleans was and what it could be than Circle Food Store."
Last summer, Landrieu's office announced a $1 million loan from the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, which launched in March 2011 to offer low-cost, flexible financing to retailers looking to expand affordable fresh food options in under-served neighborhoods. FFRI is financed by $7 million in Disaster Community Development Block Grant funds, matched by the Hope Enterprise Corporation (totaling $14 million in FFRI funds).
Boudreaux told Gambit construction will likely begin next week and he anticipates the store reopening in July. Landrieu's economic development advisor Aimee Quirk said the store will employ 75 full- and part-time jobs.
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