NEW ORLEANS - Pastors, friends, family and even former city employees of ex-Mayor Ray Nagin have written 32 letters to Judge Ginger Berrigan, asking for leniency for Nagin when he is sentenced on 20 counts of bribery, conspiracy and fraud July 9.
Most of the letters were from family members, friends and local pastors, speaking about Nagin’s character and strong family ties. His parents and sister wrote a joint letter, and even his young grandson Cino wrote a letter, illustrated with a picture of his grandfather, who he calls "Pops."
The letters were shown to reporters by Judge Ginger Berrigan’s staff Friday morning.
Nagin had sent out a blast email to some of his former staff asking if they would send in letters on his behalf. Six of the former officials in his administration did write to the judge, including his former chief administrative officer Dr. Brenda Hatfield, who testified during his trial earlier this year and appeared to deal a blow to his defense when she was cross-examined by prosecutors.
Hatfield's letter talks about how Nagin "regularly preached to staff and demanded that they be honest and trustworthy. He initiatived Executive Orders that provided greater objectivity through a committee structure in recommending companies to him for contracts."
But when she testified for the defense at trial in February, Hatfield was asked if Nagin ever took money from contractors doing business with the city and all she would say is that he "admonished" his staff to never do that. She also testified about how Nagin's executive order for contracting gave him more control over the process in a power struggle with the City Council.
That testimony clearly hurt him as the jury found him guilty of taking money from contractors doing business with the city, including one he selected using a closed process created by his executive order.
Other former employees who wrote letters asking Berrigan to be lenient were Ernest Gethers, former economic development director; Dr. Kevin Stephens, the former city health director; Charles Parent, the former New Orleans Fire Department superintendent; Julie Schwam Harris, who handled intergovernmental relations; and Pat Smith, Nagin’s former secretary.
Smith's letter also was interesting given her role in the trial. She was not called to testify, but during his testimony in his own defense, Nagin repeatedly blamed Smith and his legal team when confronted about documents he signed or produced. Most notably, when prosecutors uncovered documents showing that Nagin requested and received reimbursement for thousands of dollars for trips that he never took, Nagin said his secretary had blacked out the credits on his personal credit card billing statement.
And yet, here was Smith writing a glowing letter that blamed Nagin's co-conspirator, former technology chief Greg Meffert, for corrupting him.
"The Mayor not being a politician was very green to politics and was led astray," Smith wrote.
Ironically, testimony showed that it was Smith who used a city vendor's corporate credit card, handed to her by Meffert, to purchase first-class airfare for the whole Nagin family to go to Jamaica shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
Other former members of his administration were more even-handed in their assessment, and made reference to the stress Nagin endured while leading the city through Katrina as a reason to have mercy on him in sentencing.
“There’s no excuse for the crimes that Mayor Nagin has been convicted of, but how much more must one man and his family suffer?” wrote Parent.
“No doubt he is not perfect and has made a few mistakes as we all have done. However, I know that he is an honest man at his core and should be given the greatest degree of leniency in his sentencing,” wrote Stephens.
Stephens told WWL-TV in an interview that Nagin sent a blast email asking for the letters. He said he obliged even though he rarely dealt directly with Nagin. Stephens said he limited his observations of Nagin's character to his work on Health Department matters.
A report issued by probation officers apparently sets the minimum sentence for Nagin under the sentencing guidelines to about 20 years for his conviction on 20 corruption counts, but Berrigan is allowed to go below that range, and Nagin has asked her to do that in court filings.
Perhaps the strangest letter came from Dr. Dwight McKenna, a former candidate for Orleans Parish coroner and himself a convicted felon. His note was scribbled on letterhead and contains nothing but an approximate quote from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice": "The quality of mercy is not strained. It drops like the rain from heaven. It is twice blessed. It blesses she who gives and he who receives."
Here is the full list of people who submitted letters to the court:
- Bishop Chante Sutton, heading a group of 9 pastors
- Noah Butler III, Nagin's sign language interpreter from International Institute of Deaf Services Inc.
- Brenda Hatfield, Nagin's former city chief administrative officer and former colleague at Cox Cable
- Nina Killeen, campaign commercial producer
- Fred Luter Jr., pastor, former president Southern Baptist Convention
- Frank Davis III, pastor
- Norbert Simmons
- Sara Gipson
- Mr. and Mrs. Darial Smith
- Willie Muhammad, student minister, Muhammad Mosque
- Ernest Gethers, former city economic development official
- Beverly McKenna, New Orleans Tribune publisher
- Dwight McKenna, former School Board member and candidate for Orleans Parish coroner
- Cynthia Joubert
- Susanna Green
- Clarence R. Nagin Sr., father
- Theresa Nagin, mother
- Wanda Nagin Smith, sister
- Alana Nagin-
- O'Gilivie, sister
- Dana Nagin, cousin
- Tom Watson, pastor
- Perry Carrison
- Garry Scranage
- Robbie Gupta
- Lacee Gonzalez, mother of Nagin's grandson, whose father is Nagin's youngest son, Jarin
- Cino Nagin, grandson
- Marcia Cain, cousin
- Marie Joubert, aunt
- Dr. Kevin Stephens, former city health director
- Connie Harris
- Denise Haynes, former Nagin employee
- Valerie Broomfield Sholes, cousin of Nagin's wife Seletha
- Charles Parent, former fire superintendent
- Julie Schwam Harris, former director of intergovernmental relations