Twenty-two citizens served on the grand jury that deliberated the fate of former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
Only one, the grand jury foreman, now stands before U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle Jr. The foreman is an older, white-haired man, wearing a short-sleeved shirt. He is unassuming, perhaps retired. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, he isn’t named in court or public court documents.
Two federal prosecutors stand nearby, appropriately solemn. A gaggle of reporters sit in the back of the otherwise near-empty courtroom. Someone gives the judge a handful of papers.
The room is suddenly quiet.
The indictment of former Mayor Nagin (2002-’10) – has long been anticipated, owing to a string of guilty pleas from businessmen and city contractors.
Now that the moment is here, it’s suddenly hard to fathom.
“I have been handed a grand jury return on an indictment today signed by 22 grand jurors and signed by the foreperson,” Lemelle says. “They are true and correct?”
“Yes sir,” the foreman says. His right hand trembles.
Judge Lemelle reads a summary of the 21-count indictment against Nagin, including charges of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, bribery and filing false tax returns.
The hearing ends. Reporters run for their phones
Clarence Ray Nagin, 56, who was the city’s chief executive through Hurricane Katrina, and who won back-to-back elections for mayor – the only public office he ever sought – now faces decades in prison.
In a sense, Nagin, who once flirted with a run for Governor of Louisiana, has lost his first and most important “election.”
Federal law requires that grand juries in Louisiana be comprised of 16 to 23 registered voters in the state. There were 22 voters on the Nagin grand jury – roughly two more jurors than the average panel for the 13-parish Eastern District of Louisiana at New Orleans, according to federal court statistics for 2001-’11.
“A grand jury may indict only if at least 12 jurors concur,” according to Cornell University Law School’s Legal Information Institute (law.cornell.edu). All 22 signed the former mayor’s indictment, charging him with taking cash bribes, trips to Hawaii and Jamaica and accepting truckloads of granite for a family business.
Nagin pleaded not guilty to each of the 21 felony counts in the sweeping indictment. His two sons were implicated but not charged.
Trial was set for April 30.
So, what does the indictment of a former mayor have to do with joint city and federal efforts to reform the New Orleans Police Department, and the New Orleans Police Department’s efforts to fight the city’s chronic violent crime problem?
The answer is: plenty.
The Nagin years provide benchmarks for the rollback of police reforms and failed efforts at crime control.
Nagin took office in 2002, after defeating “reform” Police Chief Richard Pennington in a run-off election for mayor. Nagin’s supporters included police groups opposed to Pennington’s reforms.
Nagin rewarded the groups by reaching into the department and appointing consecutive chiefs from within the ranks of a force with a historical reputation for corruption and the use of excessive force.
Nagin convinced the U.S. Department of Justice to end its nine-year supervision of the NOPD during his first term. Rollbacks of the hard-won reforms of the Pennington Era – including strict supervision of paid details – soon followed, along with federal probes of the police beating death of Raymond Robair, the post-Katrina burning death of Henry Glover and the police mass shootings of unarmed blacks at Danziger Bridge the week after the storm.
Aside from the allegation that Nagin’s corruption of his office pre-dated the hurricane and continued until he left office, one particular date stands out in the 23-page indictment.
According to the federal indictment, Jan. 11, 2007, Nagin approved a city ordinance that allowed city property to be sold to a “major retail corporation,” the indictment states. “At the same time, defendant C. Ray Nagin solicited the same major retail cooperation for a business arrangement that would personally benefit him and his family-owned granite business, Stone Age LLC.”
Jan. 11 is the same day that thousands of angry citizens marched on City Hall demanding an end to violent crime – nearly six months after Gov. Kathleen Blanco had rushed 300 National Guard troops and 60 State Police troopers to the city at request of Nagin and Police Chief Warren Riley.
Demonstrators called for the resignations of the mayor, the chief of police and the district attorney. One man waved a huge white flag with blood-red letters: “S.O.S.” Every day citizens recalled horrific losses of loved ones to cold-blooded killings. The crowd refused to allow the mayor or any other elected official to address the rally. Forced to listen, Nagin stood quietly. He closed his eyes and clasped his hands, as if in prayer.
Afterwards, he and the city council held an ad hoc press conference on the second-floor of City Hall. A contrite Nagin promised reporters to stop blaming others for the city’s problems. He promised to focus on ending the city’s notorious violent reputation once and for all: “As mayor of the city of New Orleans, I am not going to talk about any other entity, whether it be the State or the Federal Government. My pledge to the citizens of New Orleans, from this day forward, is that everything that I do – going forward as your mayor – will be totally and solely focused on making sure that murders become a thing of the past in our city.”
Nagin, like anyone accused of a crime, is entitled to the presumption of innocence.
At the same time, the public, of course, is entitled to full explanation of the former mayor’s public services on that busy January day at City Hall. Who got the best deal from the businessman-turned-mayor: the crime weary public or his family granite business?
Most conversations about the NOPD post-Nagin tend to center around the overdue federal consent decree at federal court. Unfortunately there’s been too little mention of the role elected officials can play in creating both a safer city by reforming NOPD. National Guard Col. Mickey Evans published a recommendation for future New Orleans mayors in his 1994 study of NOPD that still rings true today.
“Set the example in personal conduct, professional ethics and standards of conduct,” Evans wrote in his. “Set the example for all police officers and other city employees.”