Corruption Convictions Spell 10 Year Sentence For Former NOLA Mayor

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for bribery, money laundering and other corruption crimes. The counts on which he was convicted cover a span that includes much of his two terms in office.

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A federal judge has sentenced former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to 10 years in prison for corruption conviction. The sentence was lighter than what prosecutors were seeking for the former two-term Democrat. NPR's Debbie Elliott covered Nagin's trial earlier this year, and she joins us now to talk about today's sentencing. Debbie, first remind us of what Ray Nagin was convicted of back in February.

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Well, a New Orleans jury found him guilty of 20 of the 21 federal corruption counts he was facing. They were charges like bribery, conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud and a few others. The conviction stems from Nagin's relationships with businessmen who were showering him with money and gifts - things like free granite for his family's countertop business, trips to Jamaica, trips to Las Vegas, trips to New York. All these from businesses who needed favor with City Hall. They were looking for contracts. And a lot of this is happening in that very difficult period after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the city was struggling to rebuild.

SIEGEL: Now under federal sentencing guidelines, Nagin was facing up to 20 years in prison. But the judge today scaled that back to a 10 year sentence. Why?

ELLIOT: U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan is the judge. And she told the courtroom today that she was going to be a little bit more lenient with Ray Nagin based on several factors. One, she cited his age. He's 58 years old and she said there was probably a remote possibility that he would be able to violate the public trust again. And I think she's hinting that New Orleans voters are unlikely to turn to Ray Nagin again. When he left office in 2005, he was wildly unpopular. At the time there was a lot of frustration about the pace of the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. And allegations were already starting to swirl about, you know, City Hall corruption gone rampant. Berrigan also said that prosecutors failed to present any evidence that Nagin was a ringleader here. He was not the instigator. Others came to him with bribes. It wasn't like he was going out with his hand held out and saying give me money and I'll give you city contracts. Now during the trial, Nagin, you know, continued to maintain his innocence. He took the witness stand in his own defense if you'll recall, arguing, you know, he wasn't active in city contracting decisions. That wasn't his job. And that he didn't take bribes but quote, "legitimate business investments in his family's countertop business." So at the settlement hearing today, he told the judge that he was going to stand by the testimonies already presented assuming his - what he said on the stand. And that he would just trust God to work all of this out. Still, before the sentencing hearing was out, Berrigan did say that the seriousness of Nagin's offenses could not be overstated. She said quote, "corruption breeds public cynicism nowhere more than New Orleans."

SIEGEL: For a man who really did become a national figure fighting for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, this has been a remarkable fall from grace.

ELLIOT: It really is. And, you know, he ran as a reformer back when he first won office in 2002 saying he was going to clean up City Hall. Now he becomes the very first New Orleans mayor ever convicted of a federal corruption charge and sentenced to prison for it. Granted, he's a former mayor but it's the first time a mayor has been in that position. And he will be reporting to federal prison come September 8.

SIEGEL: Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

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