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By His Own Rules 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

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.

  It helped that the stars seemed to align for his ascent. Then-state Sen. Paulette Irons had promised to take the "For Sale" sign off City Hall, a reference to the common perception that Marc Morial's administration was rife with patronage. (One of several ironies surrounding Nagin's federal indictment is that in the beginning, his administration enthusiastically cooperated with the U.S. Attorney's office to investigate Morial and his crew.) When Irons' candidacy collapsed, it opened the door for another self-professed reformer.

  Other big names on the ballot, City Councilmen Jim Singleton and Troy Carter, just seemed to offer more of the same, and beloved Police Superintendent Richard Pennington, Nagin's eventual runoff opponent, proved ill at ease with non-crime issues and overly close to then-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, now imprisoned on unrelated corruption charges. Nagin emerged so late in the 2002 campaign that the initial infatuation, from business leaders, editorial boards and many a regular voter, had little time to wear thin.

  Selling the airport was a non-starter, yet among Nagin supporters the idea served as a stand-in for a thrilling new attitude, a fresh way of approaching government. Maybe it took a swashbuckling outsider to think outside the box, the theory went, and to come up with ideas the traditional politicians on the ballot never would contemplate. That's the way it was with Nagin in those early, heady days. It felt like the improbable could happen, that New Orleans could finally get its act together, reform its questionable ways and enter the modern era. Led by a mayor who decided the old rules just didn't apply, who knew how far the city could progress?

  That's not the way it turned out, of course. Nagin arrived to tremendous fanfare, but he left City Hall in shame, amid furor over his stewardship of the Hurricane Katrina recovery and mounting evidence that he didn't just break the rules for good, but for ill.

  Sure, Katrina changed everything, from his political base to the gravity of the problems he was tasked to solve. But some patterns that emerged later, culminating in accusations that he accepted bribes from several former city contractors-turned-government witnesses, were apparent from the beginning.

  He did things his own way, played by his own rules, in ways that jibed with his early image as a businessman out to make government more nimble, efficient and responsive. When he trampled the turf of the seven elected assessors and released their data in searchable form, for instance, Nagin revealed just how unfairly the tax burden was distributed. Many observers, myself included, cheered him on.

  But Nagin also ignored convention in far less productive ways. His administration deleted emails that it was legally required to retain, even though his own city attorney had written a memo outlining the state mandate to preserve records for three years. When pressed, Nagin just shrugged off criticism.

  And some of his departures from accepted practices found their way into the indictment. In 2004, the mayor issued an executive order declaring technology contracts exempt from city bidding protocols, an action that allowed his tech chief, Greg Meffert, to funnel millions of public dollars to his old friend Mark St. Pierre in exchange for lucrative kickbacks. Nagin too was the beneficiary of St. Pierre's largesse, accepting family trips to Hawaii and Jamaica and cellphones for family members. Meffert pleaded guilty and St. Pierre was convicted at trial; both are believed to be cooperating with prosecutors against Nagin.

  Then there was his entirely out-of-the-box scheme involving Stone Age LLC, a granite company Nagin set up with his family. The indictment alleges that Nagin killed a community benefits agreement designed to steer well-paying jobs to workers who lived near the new Central City Home Depot — in exchange for a deal to be the exclusive granite installer for four other area branches of the home improvement chain. Nagin also is accused of accepting free shipments of granite from another vendor, Frank Fradella, who pleaded guilty and is cooperating.

  The rules-don't-apply-to-me attitude wasn't the only damning pattern that emerged in Nagin's early days. From the beginning, he and some of his fellow private sector recruits — including Meffert — carried a certain air of entitlement. They talked openly about the big pay cuts they'd taken to work at City Hall and created a culture in which Meffert's famous $10,000 bet with then-Councilman Jay Batt on the outcome of a sheriff's race seemed normal. (St. Pierre bailed out Meffert when he lost.)

  Nagin himself dined lavishly on the city credit card, even characterizing meals with his wife Seletha as city business. When questions inevitably surfaced, the mayor claimed that Seletha Nagin was one of his "key advisers" and that people often approached him in restaurants to talk. "That's fair game to me," he said. Nagin did acknowledge that the couple's anniversary lunch at the upscale Magazine Street bistro Lilette crossed the line, and said he'd reimbursed the city.

  And just as Nagin, in his early days, often seemed flummoxed by the intricacies of government, his later efforts to cash in on his position proved painfully unsophisticated and sloppy. He insisted his dealings with Stone Age were none of the public's business, yet he used his city email account to pressure local business people to hire the firm. This was after Katrina, when the city needed his full attention, and after an emotional re-election campaign in which he promised to lead.

  Unlike the first go-round, there was nothing exhilarating about that second campaign, and the same can be said of Nagin's second four years. Any creatively can-do instincts Nagin had left, the indictment basically confirms, he put toward setting up himself and his family for life after City Hall. In many ways, he was still the same old Nagin we met back in 2002, the defiant guy who just wasn't going to be bound by the rules that other people followed. To an older and wiser city, there was nothing funny or charming about it.

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