By Matt Smith
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin faces prison with few of his former constituents shedding any tears for the man who led them through the biggest disaster in the city's modern history.
The two-term mayor quit New Orleans after leaving office in 2010 and now lives in the Dallas suburbs. He swore off public life on his way out, and much of the city appeared ready to wash its hands of him after his Wednesday conviction on federal corruption charges.
"At one point or another, just about everybody voted for Nagin," said Clancy DuBos, political editor of the New Orleans alternative weekly Gambit. "And we all got fooled."
Nagin has four months before his scheduled sentencing June 11 -- his 58th birthday. The most serious of the 20 counts on which he was convicted carry terms of up to 20 years, but most observers expect he'll receive somewhere between 12 and 20, DuBos said.
'Too many halo-shiners'
Oliver Thomas, a former City Council president during Nagin's administration, said the ex-mayor now "has an opportunity for reflection" and to take responsibility for his actions. Thomas speaks from a certain degree of experience, having served three years in federal prison in a 2007 bribery case.
"Everybody in political office should probably go to prison, just so you can come back to the people and humility," said Thomas, who now hosts a radio show in New Orleans. "I'm tired of seeing gloating political people and then you see they have weaknesses, also ... We got too many halo-shiners in the world."
Thomas criticized the "bandwagon" he said was now cheering Nagin's conviction, but added, "We all have to take responsibility. And when you're a leader, especially an African-American leader, your integrity can't be 99%. We have to be better."
Federal prosecutors said Nagin was at the center of a kickback scheme that brought him more than $200,000 in bribes, plus personal services and free travel from businessmen seeking contracts and favorable treatment from the city. Several of those businessmen had already pleaded guilty, and they testified against the ex-mayor during the two-week trial.
Nagin maintained his innocence after Wednesday's verdict, which made him New Orleans' first mayor to be convicted of federal corruption charges. His defense was outgunned from the start, DuBos said.
"You're up against federal prosecutors whose client literally prints money," he said. "It takes a spirited defense and a substantive defense on federal criminal charges. You've got to spend some money to counter that to create your own timeline, to create your own narrative."
But Nagin didn't provide that support for his own defense, DuBos said. So in court, "It all came down to Nagin being on the stand, and the jurors said he came across as smug."
Nagin's lawyer, Robert Jenkins, did not return calls for comment Thursday. He told reporters after the verdict, "We did the best we could do."
The onetime cable-television executive was elected in 2002 on a pledge of reform with the backing of city's powerful business community. Both Gambit and the New Orleans Times-Picayune endorsed Nagin in his first run, only to oppose him later.
'People are generally forgiving'
Nagin drew national attention when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, flooding more than three-fourths of New Orleans and killing more than 1,800 people across the region.
Supporters credited his sometimes-profane pleas for aid from Washington for embarrassing the President George W. Bush administration into stepping up its response to the storm -- but his critics say he botched the city's recovery.
"His legacy is almost a non-legacy," DuBos said. "There was nothing that he actually got done. Along with his conviction, his legacy will be one of poisoning the well for any, quote, business candidate for mayor for another 20 years."
Nagin won a second term in 2006 despite a controversy over his pledge that New Orleans would remain a "chocolate" city, even as much of the city's African-American population was displaced by storm damage. But his support in both black and white wards collapsed in his last four years, something Thomas attributed as much to style and substance.
"He was mostly aloof, kind of hands-off," Thomas said. Nagin "was great at running a corporation. He was one of the smartest people I ever worked with." But he lacked the personal touch a politician needs, Thomas said.
He urged Nagin to use his prison time to help other inmates "who need his time and talent."
"That will be very rewarding, very fruitful, and he will have purpose," Thomas said. "And when he comes home, there's always work to do on the streets, especially in urban areas."
"This is the greatest country in the world, and people are generally forgiving," he added. "People will embrace you if you're willing to do the work."
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