The parallels between the current City Hall "emailgate" and the Watergate scandal of the 1970s are striking on several levels. In both cases, we have an arrogant, petty, narcissistic chief executive who, believing he is above the law, refuses to let citizens know what their leaders are up to.
Both scandals also began with a petty crime.
In Watergate, the crime was a bungled burglary at Democratic Party headquarters, followed by a massive cover-up that led all the way to the Oval Office.
At City Hall, the cover-up itself is the crime. Mayor Ray Nagin refuses to follow the state Public Records Law. His administration even destroyed thousands of public records in the form of Hizzoner's emails and at least half his 2008 calendar. The destruction of those public records was disclosed in open court after WWL-TV reporter Lee Zurik sued Nagin for refusing to honor a public-records request for copies of the emails and calendar. State law requires that public records be preserved for at least three years. Nagin's own city attorney cited the three-year requirement in a memo outlining the city's policy for handling public records requests.
The destruction of Nagin's emails also came in the midst of a federal investigation into the administration's handling of federal funds in the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Corp. (NOAH) scandal.
That's another parallel between the two scandals — the cover-up is likely to pose a much bigger problem for the chief executive than the underlying crime.
The mayor's official excuse for destruction of the emails evokes Watergate on yet another level: a series of lame, high-handed excuses at the outset of the cover-up. In Watergate, Nixon claimed no one at the White House knew anything about or had anything to do with the break-in. Later, his press secretary blithely told reporters that previous statements on the matter were "inoperative."
Nagin's initial excuse for erasing his calendar and emails from the city's computer server was that the server had become overloaded and had to be purged. Less than two weeks later, we learned that two-and-a-half years' worth of City Council emails had been retrieved — in just a week's time — in response to a public records request by Tracie Washington, a lawyer who emailed her request to city Sanitation Director Veronica White, who in turn took the request directly to the city's IT office.
When asked about the flap over the Council's emails, Nagin, apparently oblivious to the irony (read: hypocrisy) of his statement, told The Times-Picayune, "You know, it's public record, so you've got to make sure the public has access to those documents."
Last Thursday, Nagin said his records and the council's are on separate servers, and that only his was overloaded. But that doesn't excuse destroying public records. They could easily have been copied onto other servers or stored elsewhere, as required by law.
In court filings, we see yet another parallel between Nagin and Nixon — the assertion of a blanket "executive privilege" in response to requests for documents that the chief executive does not want the public or investigators to see. (See "Scuttlebutt" [p. 9] for more on this.)
Finally, like Watergate, the email scandal already has taken on a life of its own and is likely to spin off separate scandals, such as the one involving City Council emails. There is widespread suspicion among council members that the Nagin administration colluded with someone to get the council's emails released so quickly. If the council files a lawsuit, or if state or federal investigators start looking into the local scandal, Watergate's defining question — What did the president know and when did he know it? — may one day be put to Nagin.