Things have come full circle on Ray Nagin. In 2002, he cast himself as the anti-Morial, the squeaky-clean "businessman" who was going to sweep out the corruption of the previous administration. After last Friday's 63-count corruption indictment against former city technology chief Greg Meffert — once Nagin's top aide and close friend — it's hard to distinguish our present mayor from his predecessor.
Actually, that may be unfair to former Mayor Marc Morial, who does not appear to be in danger of indictment — although several of his cronies went to jail. Nagin, on the other hand, could well become a target of the ongoing federal investigation into City Hall corruption. Moreover, the feds didn't indict any of Morial's pals until he was out of office. Meffert's indictment came with six months left in Nagin's term.
The charges against Meffert, his wife Linda and former city contractor Mark St. Pierre, who previously worked for Meffert in the private sector, paint a picture of an administration run amok and of a public official drunk with power. Even casual observers of Meffert's days in City Hall were struck by his arrogance. He referred to himself as the "deputy mayor," even though the position didn't (and still doesn't) exist. He also bragged that he owned the yacht Silicon Bayou, on which he entertained friends and Nagin contributors, even though St. Pierre owned the vessel.
Then again, according to the federal indictment, the lines between St. Pierre's private-sector dealings and Meffert's public-sector responsibilities were often blurred, if not ignored, for their mutual benefit.
The feds allege in the indictment that Meffert, his wife and St. Pierre conspired to use Greg Meffert's position at City Hall to enrich St. Pierre, who in turn bribed the Mefferts in connection with the crime camera debacle; that St. Pierre paid, and the Mefferts received, various bribes, kickbacks and/or payoffs totaling more than $1 million; that the Mefferts filed false tax returns; that the Mefferts lied to the FBI about Linda Meffert's alleged employment by St. Pierre in 2004; and that all three committed money laundering and wire fraud.
What does all this say of Nagin?
At a minimum, it suggests strongly that Hizzoner was an ignoramus who didn't have enough sense to spot Meffert as a fraud and a crook. At worst, it hints that Nagin knew all along of Meffert's glaring conflicts of interest and either turned a blind eye or approved of them.
Or shared in them.
The fact that Nagin vacationed in Hawaii, Chicago and Jamaica on St. Pierre's dime makes it hard to believe the former scenario. Add to that the fact that Nagin's first-class Jamaican holiday came at the height of post-Katrina stress for most New Orleanians — in November 2005, less than 90 days after the storm — and Nagin appears as selfish, arrogant, detached and conflicted as Meffert.
In which case, all New Orleanians should take heart in U.S. Attorney Jim Letten's statement that the investigation "is not over."
PROPS TO JONES — Glad Jones, lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the recently concluded civil conspiracy case against Meffert, Dell Inc. and others, deserves big props for doggedly pursuing, through the discovery process, many of the facts that led to Meffert's indictment. Even though Jones didn't get everything his clients sought in the civil trial, he did the public immeasurable good by bringing the corruption to light.