NEW ORLEANS — Two days before former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin learns his punishment for convictions stemming from years of corruption before and after Hurricane Katrina, his lawyer is hoping to avoid what he calls a "virtual life sentence" for the man once seen as a reformer.
Defense attorney Robert Jenkins filed a motion Monday asking permission to file more paperwork in a back-and-forth with prosecutors over how federal sentencing guidelines should be applied in the case.
Nagin — a Democrat who served from 2002 to 2010 — stands before U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan for sentencing on Wednesday. In papers filed last month, Jenkins said the 20-plus years sought by prosecutors amount to a "virtual life sentence" for the 58-year-old Nagin and would deprive his teenage daughter of her father.
Prosecutors' say a stiff sentence is just, given the seriousness of the crimes and Nagin's repeated denials. They say his actions harmed the city before — and especially after — the 2005 hurricane laid waste to the city.
Nagin was a cable television executive and political newcomer when he captured the mayor's office in 2002 with a promise to clean up corruption. He is perhaps best known for a radio interview three years later in which he made an emotional, sometimes profane plea for stepped-up federal help days after levees breached during Katrina. Most of the city had flooded, hundreds died, and tens of thousands were stranded in the Superdome and the city's convention center with no power or working sewerage and little food or water.
In the ensuing months and years, Nagin's public image took a beating, in part because of remarks such as the racially charged "New Orleans will be chocolate again" and his comment that a burgeoning violent crime problem "keeps the New Orleans brand out there." Proposals to aid the city's recovery, such as opening new casinos or bottling the city's drinking water for sale, went nowhere. And, although he won re-election in 2006, by the time he left office in 2010 his popularity had plummeted.
Nagin was convicted Feb. 12 of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — money, free vacation trips and truckloads of free granite for his family business — from businessmen who wanted work from the city or Nagin's support for various projects.
Prosecutors outlined more than $500,000 in ill-gotten gain that Berrigan already has ruled Nagin will have to forfeit.
Pre-sentence reports by prosecutors and others have not been made public. But a memorandum outlining the government's rationale for a harsh sentence, based on complicated federal guidelines, was filed in public court records last week.
In it, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman compares Nagin's crimes with those of other public officials who drew stiff sentences, including former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (28 years), former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (14 years) and former Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Larry Langford (15 years).
"Nagin's widespread and corrosive breach of the public trust — lasting through much of his tenure in office — equals even the worst of these state and local corruption cases," Coman wrote.
Jenkins argues that Nagin had "an otherwise untainted life" apart from the crimes outlined by prosecutors and that the "extreme and excessive impact on his young family must be considered."
Coman notes that the schemes that led to Nagin's conviction included two family members: his two grown sons were never charged with a crime but they were part of the family business that received free granite from a contractor. And, what Jenkins calls an "aberration" was behavior that spanned six years and involved multiple contractors, Coman said.
A file in Berrigan's chambers holds more than 30 letters from those seeking leniency for Nagin or attesting to his character, including the Rev. Fred Luter, a former president of the nation's Southern Baptists, and Cino Nagin, age unavailable, whose crayon-decorated, hand-scrawled note on wide-ruled paper calls Nagin "the best grandfather in the whole world."
On the streets of New Orleans, opinions vary.
"I believe he should do a little time," said Dione Williams, 34, a lifelong New Orleans resident, walking last week in the central business district. But she was undecided as to how much.
Ryan Magee, 35, was on a break from work at a downtown office building. A native of the city who now lives in a nearby suburb, Magee said corrupt public officials should be harshly dealt with. "Whatever they throw at him, he deserves," he said of Nagin.