With some political falls, there's an attendant backdrop of tragedy. The storyline became the stuff of classic literature, from the Greeks to Shakespeare: A person of great intellect and gifts gives in to the weakest part of his or her nature and comes to a bad end as a result. The fall of former Mayor Ray Nagin, who was found guilty on 20 of the 21 counts against him in U.S. District Court on Feb. 12, was a tragedy on a personal level for the Nagin family and for the city of New Orleans on a grand scale. The city so badly needed leadership in the days, months and years after Hurricane Katrina. Nagin was grim and impassive as he left the federal courthouse after the verdict was read, saying only four words: "I maintain my innocence." It was Greek tragedy, New Orleans style.
Some saw a parallel between Nagin and former nine-term Congressman William Jefferson, who overcame a childhood in the poorest corner of Louisiana to become one of the state's leading African-American politicians. He succeeded Lindy Boggs as the congressman from Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District and could have been a player on the national stage, but he threw it all away by taking bribes. Today Jefferson sits in federal prison in Texas, where he likely won't be released until 2023. He'll be in his mid-70s.
Longtime New Orleans City Councilman Oliver Thomas also saw a promising political career cut short. He served for 13 years on the council and seemed on track to become mayor of New Orleans. When he was accused of bribery in 2007, he promptly admitted guilt and resigned from the council, serving three years in federal prison. Since then, Thomas has exhibited nothing but grace and remorse for his misdeeds, rebuilding his reputation to some extent among citizens who had looked to him as a leader.
It's hard to find a note of redemption in Nagin's fall. His demeanor on the stand was reminiscent of the man himself in office: flippant, arrogant, detached and — most of all — always blaming others for his own failures. He tried to pass himself off as a victim of zealous federal prosecutors, of the local press, of his former aides and associates, of byzantine City Hall regulations, and of Frank Fradella, the man who had delivered two free shipments of granite to his and his sons' company, Stone Age LLC. At one point, he even threw his sons under the bus from the witness stand.
How much of a victim was Ray Nagin? He took "a 300 percent pay cut" to become mayor, he said from the stand — a mathematical impossibility, but no less implausible than many of his other claims. Regarding the private jet provided by businessman George Solomon that whisked the Nagin family to New York, Nagin said he didn't have an "independent recollection" of how his family could afford to go to the Big Apple. As for charging family dinners to the city exchequer, Nagin was defiant, telling prosecutor Matt Coman, "Let me explain being mayor of New Orleans to you. It's a full-time job."
The jurors didn't buy it.
Nagin's defiance and blame-laying came to an end after just six hours of juror deliberation. He is now on home detention and scheduled to be sentenced in June. Given the hefty sentences laid on the men who cooperated with the government in the mayor's prosecution, it's hard to imagine Nagin getting out of jail until he, like Jefferson, is well into his 70s.
There's tragedy in a family that will be deprived of a father and a husband, and tragedy in a city that badly needed a leader during its darkest days. Ray Nagin, who was born at Charity Hospital and climbed his way to a scholarship at Tuskegee University and a Master of Business Administration degee at Tulane University, had the opportunity — and the obligation — to be that leader. Indeed, he ran for office as the man with the guts to take on corruption in New Orleans.
Instead, he squandered that opportunity for a pile of rocks — a truckload of granite that even he admitted on the stand was "worthless." Worst of all, Ray Nagin sold out the citizens of New Orleans when they needed him to put their interests ahead of his own. He made his choice. He can maintain his innocence all he wants, but the jury has spoken. Now he must pay the price.