Ray Nagin sentence surprises some experts. Why it was only 10 years.

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday for corruption. The trial highlighted the city's tumultuous post-Katrina era.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin leaves federal court after being sentenced in New Orleans Wednesday. Mr. Nagin was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bribery, money laundering, and other corruption that spanned his two terms as mayor, including the chaotic years after hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

Ray Nagin, a two-term mayor of New Orleans, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison Wednesday. In February, he became the first New Orleans mayor convicted of federal crimes committed while in office.

Mr. Nagin was convicted on corruption charges related to accepting thousands of dollars in bribery money, among other gifts, from contractors and vendors that swarmed New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Some of the corruption charges also date back before the August 2005 disaster.

Other recent high-profile federal corruption cases have yielded longer sentences. For example, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich received 14 years in March 2012, and former US Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana is serving a 13-year term.

The leniency Nagin received in Wednesday’s sentencing surprised some experts, given the defiance he showed both inside and outside the courtroom.

“He didn’t show remorse, he didn’t apologize, and his wife and children sent letters to the judge indicating he’s innocent,” says Mike Sherman, a political scientist at Tulane University in New Orleans. “In light of the fact he didn’t do such things that would otherwise create leniency from a judge,” his sentence is surprising.

Professor Sherman says Nagin’s scheming is indicative of a tumultuous time for the city. He is the 17th public official in the New Orleans area sentenced since Katrina.

“We had a monstrous amount of federal funding flowing through the city, which created an environment of people trying to take advantage of the system, to take whatever means possible, including those that were illegal, to sway those in authority like Ray Nagin,” he says.

Federal prosecutor Matthew Coman told reporters: “What Ray Nagin did was sell his office over and over again … the damage [he] inflicted upon this community is incalculable,”

Nagin was ordered to pay restitution of $82,000 and must report to federal prison in Oakdale, La., on Sept. 8. In his brief statement to US District Judge Ginger Berrigan, he did not express remorse.

“The only thing I want to say is I want to thank you and your staff for the professionalism that you provided. As far as my role in this, we stand by the testimonies already presented,” Nagin said.

The 10 years is half what prosecutors had originally sought during the nine-day trial. Co-conspirators testified about the pay-to-play schemes the former mayor orchestrated through a family granite countertop business operated by his sons. Prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence, including e-mail correspondence, business contracts, and credit card and bank statements.

The maximum recommended sentence was 20 years, but Judge Berrigan said several factors weighed into her decision: Nagin's age, the improbability he would once again misuse the public trust while in office, and that it was unclear that he served in a leadership role in the scheming.

Nagin’s family petitioned Berrigan to delay the sentencing due to what they said was “a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct.” In a four-page letter last week, Seletha Nagin, his wife, also said the trial wiped out the family’s finances and forced them to file for bankruptcy. “We are mentally and financially drained.… We have even sold much of our furniture and all of our jewelry with the exception of our wedding rings,” Ms. Nagin wrote.

Nagin, a former cable television executive, was voted into office in 2002 as an avowed reformer pledging to root out corruption. His tone changed in the years following Katrina, when he became the face of the city’s slow recovery, having not achieved many of the goals he outlined to bring the city back.

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