If the verdict in former Mayor Ray Nagin’s federal corruption trial brings closure to a sad, sordid chapter of post-Katrina New Orleans, the trial reminded us all of the four dysfunctional years of Nagin’s second term.
The government put on a solid case. Lead prosecutor Matt Coman mapped out a narrative in his opening statement and then produced 26 witnesses and reams of documents to support it. That’s what good lawyers do: they begin by telling a story and then they promise to prove it from the witness stand. If they fail to keep that promise, they lose the case. Coman kept his promise.
When prosecutors put on a strong case, the burden shifts — not legally but practically — to the defense. Instead of presenting an alternate narrative, Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, simply tried to spin the government’s facts with a handful of witnesses who generally did not hold up well under cross-examination.
Jenkins closed with Nagin himself, who delivered a tour-de-force reprise of his role as the city’s narcissist-in-chief. Some courtroom observers painted him as arrogant; others said he was just trying to be charming. I wasn’t there, but as I followed his testimony online and talked about it with courtroom observers, I think what jurors saw was Nagin trying to be charming — in his hallmark above-it-all sort of way. On his final day on the stand, Nagin also played the victim card. Several times, particularly when Coman produced documents to discount the former mayor’s testimony that he took no bribes, Nagin shrugged and said, “It was post-Katrina.”
Using the “Katrina defense” struck me as a real gamble, considering how well Nagin lived while practically everyone else was suffering. Then again, going to trial at all was the ultimate gamble, in light of the case against him. I suppose we’ll never know what Nagin was thinking when he refused to cut a deal and plead to a lesser charge. It bolsters speculation that he truly lost touch with reality after Katrina.
Another big gamble for Nagin was his testimony that everyone else — not C. Ray Nagin — was responsible for awarding contracts to the folks who were lining his pockets, or for booking flights (paid for by contractors) to faraway places. He even threw his own sons under the bus (a phrase that practically earned its own Twitter hashtag during Nagin’s final day on the stand) when Coman pressed him to explain why he didn’t report the “investment” income on his federal tax returns. He claimed the boys put that info in a box somewhere, and he only found it later. That, from a guy who spent most of his career in accounting.
And all the while he’s turning to jurors and smiling. That’s the ultimate in narcissism, isn’t it — thinking that everyone around you is buying your b.s. and that, somehow, nothing that goes wrong is ever your responsibility?
That act passed for charm in 2002, but for most New Orleanians it wore off after Katrina. Oh, sure, we love charming politicians — as long as they get the job done. Ironically, Ray Nagin’s biggest crime is one for which he was never formally charged: depriving New Orleanians of real, effective leadership when we needed it most.
Instead, he lived the good life, jetting off to Jamaica, Chicago, Vegas — and setting up himself and his sons in a business that he thought would make it big, mostly on the dime of city contractors — while the people he was sworn to serve struggled just to get back into their muck-filled homes so they could start cleaning out the mold.
In the end, all Ray Nagin has left is his delusional self-image as an amiable guy who did his best under very difficult circumstances. On the stand, he tried one last time to mask his narcissism as charm. The government did a much better job of exposing him as a venal poseur who helped himself when he should have been helping the people who put him on the pedestal he thought he owned.
It’s high time the curtain falls on that act.