Bourbon Street. The French Quarter. Mardi Gras. And corruption.
Democratic ex-Mayor Ray Nagin, who led the city during Hurricane Katrina and its troubled aftermath, will serve 10 years in prison for taking bribes, a federal court announced Wednesday.
But the former cable TV executive is just the latest in a long line of public officials to be prosecuted in Louisiana, often listed as among America’s most corrupt states.
A study this year by researchers from Indiana University and the University of Hong Kong listed Louisiana as the second most corrupt state in the nation, behind only Mississippi. A 2013 study by Business Insider found Louisiana to be the king of corruption, with a statewide rate of nine convictions for every 100,000 people.
Perhaps nowhere in Louisiana is the corruption more pronounced than in New Orleans. The decade-long effort to rebuild from the devastation of Katrina created plenty of opportunities for city leaders to sell reconstruction efforts to the highest bidder.
Nagin, 58, served as mayor from 2002 to 2010, and became a national face for New Orleans during the rebuilding process following Hurricane Katrina. But he quickly lost much of his good will within the city. Residents decried the slow rebuilding process that sometimes seemed to be at a standstill, and the Democratic mayor was often painted in local media as being aloof and uncaring about the devastation around him.
Following his arrest last year, he was convicted in February on 20 counts of corruption. Federal prosecutors said Nagin accepted bribes including cash, family trips and vacations and help with his family-run company. In exchange, he gave lucrative city contracts that allowed the businesses to earn millions.
The conviction is “the closing of a dark chapter in the history of this great city,” said Gabriel Grchan, the FBI special agent in charge of the probe. “While most people were working to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, these individuals were conspiring to benefit themselves at the expense of the citizens that elected them.”
Nagin is the first New Orleans mayor who will serve prison time, but he’ll have plenty of company from the city government’s ranks. According to The Advocate, one of Louisiana’s largest newspapers, 16 other New Orleans city leaders, parish presidents and council members have been convicted since Katrina made landfall in 2005.
The prison sentences have ranged from three months to 17 years, and the charges include fraud, accepting bribes, tax evasion, money laundering and sometimes outright theft.
Louisiana GOP Governor Bobby Jindal has mostly remained silent about Nagin’s conviction, and calls to the governor’s office went unanswered Wednesday.
Mr. Jindal himself has often faced accusations of corruption. He was listed in both a 2010 and 2013 report on corrupt governors by watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
A review of campaign finance records by the Louisiana Free Press and referenced by CREW found that 193 people the governor appointed to state boards and commissions also donated a combined $2.6 million to his election campaigns.
The state has a long history of a culture of corruption, dating back to the 1930s. During the Great Depression, Democratic Governor Huey Long launched his “Share Our Wealth” program, designed to give every American a base annual income of $5,000 and pay for it by capping the amount corporations and millionaires could have in personal income.
But following Long’s assassination in 1935, the people who took control of the state decided not to use their power to help the poor, but to help themselves.
One of Long’s successors, Democrat Richard Leche, in 1940 gained the dubious distinction of being the first Louisiana governor sentenced to prison for corruption.
According to the Louisiana Historical Association, Leche was eventually convicted on charges of mail fraud and accepting kickbacks after buying a yacht, a country estate and a private hunting preserve.
In modern times, the most colorful tale of Louisiana corruption may have come from former Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Democrat who in 2009 was given the longest sentence ever handed down to a congressman for bribery — 13 years.
An earlier FBI raid of his home turned up $90,000 in illicitly-gotten loot wrapped in aluminum foil in the congressman’s freezer.
Nagin’s 10-year sentence matches that handed down to Democrat Edwin Edwards, who served as Louisiana governor for four terms spaced between 1972 and 1996. In 2000, Mr. Edwards was convicted of fraud, money laundering, extortion and racketeering.
Having now served his sentence, Mr. Edwards announced he is running for Congress in Louisiana’s 6th District in November.