For all his talk of "changing the paradigm" at City Hall, former Mayor Ray Nagin's arc from telegenic reformer to accused crook followed an all-too-familiar plot line: He started out full of ideals and good intentions, and then, step by step, one small seduction and compromise at a time, proceeded down his personal road to perdition.
To be sure, some politicians are corrupt when they get in the game. But the more common story line is one of a starry-eyed guy who runs for office to make a difference — a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington tale, if you will, that somehow morphs into Mr. Smith Goes to Jail.
Do such people just wake up one day and decide to be corrupt? No, not really. Typically, they get seduced over time by the public adulation, the perks and, above all, the power. Before long they start to believe their own PR. They get a whole new set of friends who shower them with favors — small ones at first. They convince themselves they're not doing anything wrong. They're still honest, they convince themselves. Besides, it's such a small thing — a free meal or a ticket to a ball game that, over time, becomes a plane ride or a golfing trip. From there, it's another small step, really, to backroom business deals or just plain old cash.
Many become proprietary about their office, forgetting that it actually belongs to the public. They ultimately see their elected position not only as "theirs" to own, but also as their personal chattel — to pledge, pawn, sell or otherwise use for their own private gain.
Then they wake up one day up to their eyeballs in graft, with the FBI knocking on the door, and they ask themselves how it all happened.
I think that's what happened to Ray Nagin. And the way it happened to him brings to mind one of his favorite catch phrases: tipping points.
Each small step that Nagin took, whether with criminal intent or unsuspectingly, took him that much farther down a dark, dangerous path. Each was, in its own way, a tipping point, a moment of critical mass, because each led inexorably to another, darker, more dangerous step. Now, many steps later, Nagin finds himself facing several lifetimes in jail.
How did that happen? Consider this timeline of Nagin's tipping points, most of them alleged in the 21-count indictment against him:
Spring 2002 — Nagin is inaugurated as New Orleans' new, reform-minded mayor. Immediately he gets a set of police bodyguards, a reserved parking space at City Hall and a city credit card. Everybody in town is kissing his ass and telling him how wonderful he is. The seduction begins.
Summer 2002 — Nagin's administration "cracks down" on corruption by arresting a few dozen cabbies and minions at City Hall. The cases ultimately fizzle, but his image as a "reformer" is burnished by an adoring press (Gambit included). A narcissist to his core, Nagin falls in love with his image and, believing his own PR (as echoed by the media), he assumes rock star status. The perks and the power flow. It's good to be the mayor.
June 2004 — Nagin signs an executive order authorizing his tech chief, Greg Meffert, to give "no bid" city work to Meffert's friend and business partner Mark St. Pierre. The compromises begin.
December 2004 — The Meffert and Nagin families, now close friends, take a holiday trip to Hawaii. The trip is paid for by St. Pierre, who by now has a passel of lucrative City Hall IT contracts. Meffert wields a St. Pierre credit card as his own. This is how rock stars like Nagin and Meffert roll. It's really good to be the mayor.
August-September 2005 — Hurricane Katrina hits. Nagin and the city are woefully unprepared for the disaster. Days after the storm, the mayor shines by calling out President George W. Bush, but a few short weeks later he slumps to the floor in the state Capitol and moans, "I did not sign up for this shit. I did not sign up for this shit!"
November 2005 — A weary Nagin takes his family on a first-class trip to Jamaica for some (in his view) well-deserved R&R. The trip was paid for by St. Pierre.
Winter/Spring 2006 — Nagin wins re-election, thanks to political capital raised at a Chicago fundraiser hosted by St. Pierre, who remembers his friend, the mayor, in his time of need. St. Pierre gets more no-bid city work.
May 2006 — A man the feds identify as "Businessman A" gives Nagin free private jet travel to, and limousines in, New York City. The feds say Nagin helped get penalties waived in connection with the businessman's overdue tax bills and loan payments due to the city. The mayor's office is now Ray Nagin's chattel.
January-October 2007 — Corrupt businessmen Aaron Bennett and Frank Fradella treat Nagin to trips to Chicago and Las Vegas. Two months later, Nagin gives Fradella his first post-Katrina contract, worth $3 million. By the end of 2007, Nagin gives Fradella millions more in city contracts. During this same time, the Nagin family's granite countertop business, Stone Age LLC, gets an exclusive vendor deal from Home Depot after the mayor helps the home improvement giant open a new store in Central City by brushing aside community concerns.
January 2008 — Nagin gets $60,000 from Rodney Williams via a shell corporation that doesn't even officially exist yet, according to the feds. The perks have now escalated to full-scale bribes — a major tipping point that ultimately leads to Nagin's indictment.
February 2008 – February 2010 — Nagin showers contracts on Williams' company, Three Fold Consultants LLC. Those contracts are expanded after Williams pays $2,250 to Stone Age and, according to the feds, $10,000 in cash to Nagin's sons in 2009.
June and August 2008 — Fradella ships two loads of granite to Stone Age from Florida. The granite is rumored to be worth more than $100,000. The feds also claim Nagin got a $50,000 bribe from Fradella via corrupt business associate Michael McGrath.
July 2010-March 2011 — The feds say Nagin got $112,500 in bribery payments from Fradella, most of them via wire transfers. This is after Nagin has left office, but the feds say it's a fraudulent scheme to deprive the citizens of Nagin's honest services as mayor.
January 2013 — Nagin is indicted by the feds on 21 counts of corruption. If the former mayor does not reach a plea deal in the coming months, a superseding indictment could charge him with more counts — and his sons could face criminal charges as well.
Nagin famously — and maddeningly — described his family's post-Katrina trip to Jamaica on St. Pierre's dime as "a blur." Now, in the bright light of the federal indictment, every one of Nagin's many steps down his road to perdition stands in sharp focus — if not to him, then certainly to a public long grown weary of this familiar tale.