by Elliott Stonecipher
Finally and thankfully, the federal grand jury indictments of former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin came down yesterday. As the smoke clears, the facts of these twenty-one counts of corruption are ugly. The Times-Picayune’s Gordon Russell well shares the details in his report today.
Key partners with Nagin as he serially sold-off the public trust have already entered into plea agreements and are helping prosecutors. Those prosecutors and Nagin have been negotiating his guilty plea for months, and 15 years is the conventional wisdom’s guess as to the time he is likely to spend in prison.
Though this, in its genesis, is yet another Hurricane Katrina story, it is not just another Katrina story, and will likely prove to be our most damaging one. While we natives live with our state’s biblical injunction that there will always be corruption and rumors of corruption, the thousands from around the world who gave and so diligently worked on our state’s recovery for the past seven years cannot be expected to. Literally thousands of people, most of whom had never been here, pitched-in as they could. Since politics and demographics were at issue in the news media coverage, I gave my time to work with journalists and government agency officials for more than two years, and was very impressed as so many of them expressed their sincere personal concern as they did their jobs.
The world cared about New Orleans. They gave, and many have followed the city’s story since. Today, huge numbers are learning that while heaven and earth were being moved to “save New Orleans,” the city’s mayor was surveying the scene to find opportunities for personal enrichment. Even Huey and Earl Long at the peaks of their low-down-and-dirty reigns could not – did not – besmirch Louisiana as this sorry chapter does. This time, we drew the world into our ability to ignore to the point of nurturance our fully developed culture of public corruption.
For those around the globe who might wonder what Nagin’s successor as mayor of New Orleans thinks about all of this, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, as if on cue, dutifully phoned it in:
“Today’s indictment of former Mayor Ray Nagin alleges serious violations of the public’s trust. Public corruption cannot and will not be tolerated.”
The current mayor’s yawn, and the matching yawn of no doubt most in our state’s political class, is unmistakable. Landrieu and many others of us know the truth here is the opposite of his official and on the record poppycock: public corruption in Louisiana is now, and has always been, almost completely tolerated. Were it not for the record of outgoing New Orleans U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, one would need to dig very deep among government officials to find one who doesn’t routinely change the subject anytime this one comes up. It is important, in fact, that Letten’s record is so remarkable to us – and it truly is – given that he merely did the job he was appointed and paid to do in a target-rich environment.
It is no wonder that 600,000-plus former residents of Louisiana picked their stuff up and moved out since 1980. What with an apparently irreparable public education system, rampant “major crime” in key cities, and the warm and comfortable relationship Louisiana officialdom has with public corruption, what does logic suggest?
All else aside, here is what we know. When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana as summer wore down in 2005, Mayor Nagin’s New Orleans and the rest of the state were ill-prepared. What NOAA identifies as the “most destructive hurricane to ever strike the U.S.,” took 1,831 lives, most of those in the city Ray Nagin took an oath to care for and serve. As he took to the airwaves to chastise everyone in earshot for not helping enough, people from around the world were already coming to our rescue in every known way. Between the Red Cross, Salvation Army and individual pocketbooks, $4 billion in private donations were sent to us, along with over $140 billion from our own government. Given the stunning, worldwide outpouring of assistance, the impressive and immediate help from such nations as England, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland and China may not now seem remarkable, but it was at the time. As if to underscore the phenomenon of global support, nations as poor as Bangladesh and Mauritania immediately set aside money for Louisiana which they could ill-afford to give.
Now, the world begins to digest the official word that the New Orleans mayor was, at the very time, already guilty of corruption involving technology contracts, and in perfect position to personally cash-in on hurricane recovery largesse. Predictably for our state, he took advantage of the opportunity.
Our sizable stable of apologists will argue that this is “only” about a few corrupt men, knowing full well that they are no such thing. We will not discuss whether these are merely a few corrupt men among hundreds or more in Louisiana government and politics, plying their trade because the Louisiana system guarantees and systemically covers such. Neither will we discuss how so few among so many are ever so much as questioned about their thieving, much less brought to justice.
As Louisiana officials now move into loudly silent ignorance of this noxious day, I suggest, instead, an apology on our behalf, perhaps something along these lines:
“To each of you everywhere who supported Mayor Nagin and the rest of Louisiana in our need, please accept our apology. That any of your heartfelt gifts were seen by any government official as just another opportunity to steal is repugnant to the good and honest people of Louisiana. We regret, too, that many other officials and their friends may have also taken such advantage. Most of us are not like them. From those of us who reached deep and gave much, just as you did, rest assured that we have never taken your gifts and concern lightly, nor will we ever.”
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest. No compensation of any kind has been solicited or accepted for this work. This work is protected, and no other use of it is permitted without the written consent of Mr. Stonecipher.