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Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin sentenced

By Brian E. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Jul 16, 2014 - 7:05:18 PM

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Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin who navigated the city through the tumultuous Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was sentenced July 9 to ten years of imprisonment for public corruption.

Mr. Nagin was indicted on charges that included bribery and money laundering and found guilty in February 2014 on 20 of 21 criminal counts against him. 

The 58-year-old Nagin served two terms in City Hall as a “reformer” and beacon of hope for a city plagued with corruption after entering politics from the business world. But some question whether Mr. Nagin, who became a controversial figure during the Katrina crisis, was targeted by New Orleans wealthy White power brokers.

“He upset some of the people who call the shots in this city that are not political officials but they are economically strong and they influence the politicians,” said Willie Muhammad, New Orleans representative of the Nation of Islam and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.

Mr. Nagin who consistently denied any misconduct told a local TV reporter that he was marked by “powerful” forces to be brought down.

“In my opinion, I’ve been targeted, smeared, tarnished and for some reason some of the stances that I took after Katrina didn’t sit well with some very powerful people,” Mr. Nagin said outside the courthouse after the hearing. “So now I’m paying the price for that.”

Prosecutors say Mr. Nagin accepted bribes of money, free travel and gifts from business people angling for lucrative city contracts in schemes that happened before and after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

The charges stemmed from a City Hall investigation that ended in numerous convictions and plea deals by former Nagin colleagues.

“Mayor Nagin in his core believes he did nothing wrong,” said Oliver Thomas, former New Orleans City Council president, in a telephone interview with The Final Call. “But when you are dealing with the federal government that doesn’t mean anything.”

Mr. Thomas explained that wrong or right is irrelevant to the government when they target someone; that’s how the set up happens, replete with questionable witnesses who side with the government and are often times facing worst cases themselves.

Mr. Nagin is the latest major politician to be convicted in New Orleans, a city nicknamed the “Big Easy” and legendary for its laid back demeanor, but also its chronic corruption. It’s undeniable that greed; avarice and inordinate self-interest are commonplace in politics. Another prominent figure disgraced by corruption is ex-Congressman William Jefferson—a veteran politician who represented parts of New Orleans for nearly two decades. Rep. Jefferson is serving 13 years in federal prison for influence peddling and taking kickbacks estimated at $500,000 to broker business deals in Africa.

Notwithstanding the charges that convicted Mr. Nagin some see his demise in the wider context of a long history of attacks on Black leadership in the United States. Considering the history of the rise and take down of some Black elected officials going back decades, Mr. Nagin’s fall merits a “special level of scrutiny,” political analyst and University of Houston History Professor Dr. Gerald Horne told the Final Call

“It’s fair to say that such a conviction of yet another high ranking Black elected official has to raise eyebrows given the well documented penchant (and) proclivity of the U.S. authorities to indict, prosecute and imprison Black leaders,” said Dr. Horne.

If the former mayor’s downfall is the result of deliberate targeting, it’s no different from targeting Black organizations and leaders during the 1960s and 1970s by the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover and COINTEL PRO. “That’s part of (the) American fiber,” said Mr. Thomas.

“Since we know that, then the other side of the question is how do we begin to do like big mama and big papa said? ‘We got to be two times better, two times smarter’ and included in that has to be our ethics and our character,” Mr. Thomas added.

Winning city hall in 2002, “Ray Nagin was actually very conservative … the favorite of the White business community” that he later fell out of favor with, said Mr. Thomas. Compounded by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Mr. Nagin’s 2006 re-election bid was seen as an opportunity to remake the city and do something different.

In an effort to control profitable recovery contracts post-Katrina, the powerful White elites conspired to ultimately make “the Big Easy” a bastion for White privilege and kept displaced Blacks from returning. Mr. Nagin stood up and galvanized Black voters, at one point declaring that despite what White folks are doing, “New Orleans will be chocolate again.”

“After that Mayor Nagin went from being the darling of the news media here” to being under attack daily, said Mr. Muhammad.

According to AP reports, prosecutors pushed for a 20 year sentence citing the gravity of the corruption especially happening during a time of deep crises after Katrina. However Judge Helen Berrigan recognized the weight of the case but characterized Mr. Nagin as a lesser player in the crime. In comparison, some of the businessmen involved won millions of dollars in contracts while the embattled Mr. Nagin is believed to have cleared maybe $500,000 in cash and gifts over 8 years.

“Mr. Nagin was not the organizer or leader of the group,” Judge Berrigan said. At times, she said, the crimes appeared to be motivated by a desire to impress and provide for his loved ones, something “less than ordinary greed.”

And she said there were times when Mr. Nagin demonstrated “a genuine if all too infrequent” desire to help a city back up after the calamitous flooding.

Mr. Nagin is scheduled to report Sept. 8 to a federal facility in Oakdale, Louisiana—where former Gov. Edwin Edwards spent some of his own 10-year sentence, and where former Rep. Jefferson is held.

(Brian E. Muhammad can be reached @Brianmuh@hotmail.com.)

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