Face Of Katrina Recovery Found Guilty Of Corruption Charges

Wednesday in New Orleans, a federal jury convicted former Mayor Ray Nagin on 20 of 21 corruption counts. The two-term mayor was in office when Hurricane Katrina struck and was the public face of the city during the city's rebuilding. Federal prosecutors say that it was during this time he took bribes to steer rebuilding contracts to businessmen.

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The mayor who saw New Orleans through Hurricane Katrina and years of rebuilding has been found guilty of corruption. Ray Nagin was convicted today of taking bribes and gifts from contractors in return for city work. A federal jury pronounced him guilty on 20 of 21 counts. They found that Nagin, a Democrat, accepted tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs.

NPR's Debbie Elliott was in court when the verdicts were read and she joins us now. And, Debbie, what a remarkable fall for the man who was the face of New Orleans, as we all remember, during Hurricane Katrina.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: It really is. With today's verdict, Ray Nagin becomes the first ever New Orleans mayor - or former mayor now - ever convicted of federal corruption. This happened to a man who, when he first won office back in 2002, he was a political outsider. He campaigned that he was a businessman; that he was going to bring order to city hall, he was going to clean things up. So this was certainly a stinging defeat for him.

Nagin had staked his defense on his own credibility. He took the witness stand in hopes that he could convince the jury that he wasn't actively involved in city contracting decisions, that somehow he was just doing his duty when he would put his signature on the contracts in question. All along he has denied taking bribes, saying that contractors were making, quote, "legitimate investments" in his family's business.

SIEGEL: Well, remind us of some of the charges which he's now been convicted.

ELLIOTT: Bribery, conspiracy, money laundering, honest services, wire fraud. You know, throughout this trial, prosecutors painted this picture of what they called was a mayor on the take. He was profiting from his public office by accepting money, free gifts. He took some trips paid for by contractors to places like Jamaica, Las Vegas, New York, Chicago, all at a time when these certain businessmen needed something in exchange from the city.

Five former associates of Ray Nagin's, who had either pleaded guilty or been convicted themselves, took the witness stand, testified against him. And then there was a bit of paper evidence backing everything up, as well; for instance, bills showing that he took his family to extravagant dinners and then charged it to a city credit card.

SIEGEL: I recall Ray Nagin as a very composed, cool man. As he heard the verdicts, what was it like in court today?

ELLIOTT: Also very composed and cool, did not show a whole lot of reaction. Now, I was sitting behind his wife who did flinch the moment she heard the judge read that first guilty verdict. And then by the time, you know, all 21 were read, she was, you know, reduced to tears and was being consoled by some other family members or friends. Nagin passed by her, patted her hand, said: Hang in.

And then when he left the courthouse - for a good hour and a half after the verdicts were read - with his attorney, head high, very stoically walking out of the courtroom as a pack of reporters shouted questions at him. He did maintain his innocence. His lawyer indicated they will appeal.

Earlier in the day, right before the verdict was read, outside of the courtroom, he told a reporter: I've been at peace about this for a long time.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in New Orleans.

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