NEW ORLEANS -- Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, now in the middle of a 10-year federal prison sentence, factors in a brand new criminal indictment, although he’s never mentioned by name.
A federal grand jury indicted Grammy-winning trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his music and business partner Ronald Markham last week, charging Mayfield with 19 felony counts and Markham with 18, including conspiracy, fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
The alleged conspiracy – to transfer almost $1.4 million in public library donations to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra where Mayfield and Markham made six-figure salaries, to another nonprofit where Mayfield controlled a bank account and to pay personal expenses – appears to begin with NOJO’s reliance on Nagin’s political patronage.
“Throughout its existence, NOJO relied heavily on grants from the Edward Wisner Donation, a charitable trust administered by the City of New Orleans,” the indictment reads. It adds that in 2011 the city terminated the grants for NOJO, “causing great financial distress to NOJO and its ability to pay expenses. Mayfield and Markham then began a search for new sources of funding.”
Nagin left office in May 2010. His successor, Mayor Mitch Landrieu decided not to give any more Wisner money to NOJO.
According to the indictment, the duo then turned to the Public Library Foundation as its next cash cow, using their positions on the library charity’s small governing board to start transferring the money to their other nonprofits in August 2011.
NAGIN FACTORS INTO MAYFIELD'S RISE TO PROMINENCE
Prosecutors say Mayfield and Markham sent “false and misleading correspondence” to other board members of both the Library Foundation and NOJO, as well as to auditors and financial managers, to conceal the true use of the money.
But that kind of scheme hadn’t been necessary when Nagin had been in office. Nagin had named Mayfield the city’s “cultural ambassador” in 2003, helping propel the young musician to prominence when presidents and foreign dignitaries came to town. Nagin also named Mayfield as chairman of the New Orleans Public Library board, which made him a member of the Library Foundation board too.
The former mayor then tied to give his protégé a no-bid contract to redevelop the gutted Municipal Auditorium after Hurricane Katrina, but the deal was called “improper” and scuttled by Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux in 2009.
Nagin also began sending more than $1.2 million to NOJO in 2008 by using the Wisner grants. Under the terms of the late Edward Wisner’s annual contribution to the city, the sitting mayor would have almost unfettered control over where the money would be spent, as long as it supported a cultural or community-minded group.
Nagin’s first Wisner payment to NOJO came in December 2008. NOJO asked for a $100,000 grant to coordinate ceremonies for the re-opening of the Mahalia Jackson Theatre for the Performing Arts, right next to the Municipal Auditorium in Armstrong Park.
But annotating the application by hand, the Nagin administration increased the award to $125,000. Later, it turned out NOJO only needed $101,731 to pay performers, staff and fees for the ceremony, held in January 2009.
CITY GRANT MONEY PAID FOR GRAMMY-WINNING CD
In August 2015, WWL-TV reported that records in the City Archives showed the remaining $23,269 was used for totally unrelated NOJO expenses, including paying musicians for recording a CD called “Book One.” That album won the 2010 Grammy Award for Irvin Mayfield, and it was paid for, in part, by a Wisner Grant.
Markham did not ask for permission to use the money that way until Aug. 23, 2015, two weeks after WWL-TV’s report. The committee that oversees the Wisner Trust met Aug. 25, 2015, and declined to approve the NOJO spending, but the city never tried to claw back the money.
The largest grant Nagin sent to NOJO was $1.21 million to oversee the building of a sculpture garden in Armstrong Park, featuring statues of Louis Armstrong, Big Chief “Tootie” Montana, Congo Square and other New Orleans music icons.
That project was also rife with controversy. Nagin awarded the construction contract to a convicted felon’s firm, then had his crews work late at night so he could unveil the Roots of Music Cultural Sculpture Garden just five days before leaving office. After Landrieu took over, he found a litany of construction errors and had to hire a new contractor to redo significant portions of the project.
Earlier this month, Nagin, who is serving his federal prison term in Texarkana, Texas, declined WWL-TV’s interview request through the prison warden’s office.
FEDS SAY CITY GRANT FUNDS PROPPED UP NOJO
In May 2015, NOJO issued a statement to WWL-TV saying, “All $1.21 million was distributed to the artists. NOJO acted solely in a custodial capacity and took no fees for managing the project.”
And yet, the federal indictment alleges the Wisner Grant payments were not just passing through NOJO’s hands, but rather crucial to paying its expenses. Audits show more than half NOJO’s revenues in 2009 came from the Wisner Grants.
“If that orchestra doesn’t have those funds, it may not survive, which means their salaries cannot be paid,” said Rafael Goyeneche, whose Metropolitan Crime Commission first referred the Mayfield investigation to the FBI in 2013. “We reviewed their tax returns from 2007, '08, '09 and '10, and they were operating at a deficit, until the library monies started to be accessed and funneled into the Jazz Orchestra.”