Ray Nagin's Ego Is Too Big to Comprehend His Own Guilt

The disgraced former mayor of New Orleans just got a ten year prison term for bribery, wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. But so far, he steadfastly refuses to believe he might have done anything wrong. He called the prosecution "magical."

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Jul 10 2014, 6:39am

Photo via Flickr user Tulane Public Relations

When Ray Nagin first ran for mayor of New Orleans in 2002, the centerpiece of his campaign was about getting tough on crime. Recently, it’s been Nagin hoping the law would cut him some slack. For 20 felony counts of bribery, wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion, the disgraced former mayor just got sentenced to 10 years in minimum-security prison—five years less than guidelines suggested. But so far, he steadfastly refuses to believe he might have done anything wrong.

From the beginning, Nagin maintained his innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The vendors who plied him with bribes pled guilty long ago. His own City Hall deputy, Greg Meffert, broke down in tears as he apologized from the witness stand. In February, Nagin pleaded “not guilty” to each of the charges against him, his voice remaining absolutely calm as every muscle in his body became more rigid.

Photo by Anna Gaca

“It looked like if he could have, he would have levitated,” said Kalen Wright, a local forensics analyst who watched Nagin’s indictment close-up. “He looked like he was sort of vibrating towards the end. That was when I got the sense that he really believed that he had committed no wrong. It was surreal.”

The prospect of a decade in jail hasn’t budged Nagin’s incredulity, either. “In my opinion, I’ve been targeted, smeared, tarnished,” he told local TV news on Wednesday morning. “The prosecutors were fairly magical in their ability to take something that supposedly happened and paint it as reality when it didn't really happen.” There was nothing magical about it, so the ex-mayor fooled no one—except, apparently, himself.

These days, Nagin is ridiculed by the city where he was born. Someone snapped up his domain name and turned it into a satirical Tumblr describing him as a “jive talker, bribe taker, convicted felon, and soon-to-be jailbird.” But Ray Nagin’s real crime wasn’t accepting trips to New York and Hawaii, taking truckloads of free granite, or killing a plan to pay local Home Depot employees a living wage in exchange for a contract with his family’s stone countertop business. By the standards of Louisiana corruption, Ray Nagin is small fry. The bribes he accepted pale in comparison to the ones former Governor Edwin Edwards took in the 90s. His schemes aren't even in the same league as those of Governor Huey Long, whose legendary rackets were canonized in All the King's Men.

The real wrongdoing, the one that hangs over Nagin’s head like a cartoon anvil, comes from the same source as nearly every other problem plaguing the city: Hurricane Katrina. The ex-mayor is reviled for failed leadership, for the countless mistakes and missteps his administration made during the recovery, and for the endless bloviating he undertook throughout it all. The spectacle of his corruption trial was an insult added to an injury New Orleans badly wishes to put behind it.

Photo by Anna Gaca

Once a symbol of city unity, Nagin became the icon of its darkest hour. For a while, he was as much a disaster capitalism entrepreneur as he was the mayor. His response to one of the most costly and poorly managed catastrophes in American history was to reposition himself as an expert in disaster response. His path to national fame was paved with self-congratulation and a speaking tour. In 2008, while swaths of the city were still fighting for recovery resources, a group of Nagin’s loyal acolytes bestowed him with a dubious “Award of Distinction for Recovery, Courage and Leadership.” 

Then they celebrated their newly created honor with a swanky party at the Ritz-Carlton. Nagin went on to self-publish a memoir extolling his management prowess, exercising his characteristically loose grasp on the facts while claiming that God chose him for the task of hurricane recovery.

Nearly ten years on from the storm, the flood, and the aftermath, New Orleans is finished with Nagin. Outside the federal courthouse where he received his sentence, a crudely lettered paper sign was taped to back of a bus stop. “Keep in Mind Martha Stewart When Sentencing Our Former Mayor Ray Nagin! They Are Both Human,” it read. It was as pathetic and nonsensical as Nagin’s own denial-ridden defense, and received with about as much authority.

By the time he’s released from prison, Nagin will be 68 years old. His political career is dead. Despite the declarations of innocence, his public persona is that of a man with his tail between his legs. For all his graft, he’s practically broke. It’s not clear how he’ll repay the $500,000 worth of bribes he received, or the $84,000 in restitution he owes to the IRS. He doesn’t have the virility or the personality of former Governor Edwards, who at age 68 is looking forward to the first birthday of his fifth child with his third wife. Even granite countertops aren’t in style anymore. If Nagin has a future, it’s probably in trading faded name recognition for the opportunity to peddle questionable disaster recovery advice. God help anyone who takes him seriously.

Follow Anna Gaca on Twitter.

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