NEW ORLEANS — Ray Nagin’s abrupt release from prison Monday amid the coronavirus pandemic brought down the final curtain on the biggest City Hall corruption scandal in New Orleans’ colorful history to wind up in a courtroom.
The former mayor was the last to get out of prison of a half-dozen convicts implicated in the case.
Nagin, who served two tumultuous terms in office that ended in 2010, was found guilty by a jury in 2014 on 20 counts of wire fraud, bribery and tax evasion after a trial that captivated the city. He was the first New Orleans mayor ever convicted of corruption. He reported to prison that fall to begin serving a 10-year term, but went home to his family in Frisco, Texas, on Monday after completing a little over half of his sentence at a prison camp in Texarkana, Texas.
Nagin’s early release at age 63 came at the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons, an arm of the Department of Justice, which has been under orders from U.S. Attorney General William Barr to release vulnerable inmates into home confinement when possible. A spokesman for the BOP said he could not comment on the specifics of Nagin’s current arrangement but said that he was under the supervision of a federal probation office in Dallas, and that, all told, 1,576 federal inmates — less than 1% of the total population — had been moved into home confinement.
The Bureau reported 1,376 total COVID-19 cases and 28 inmate deaths in 46 prisons and 17 halfway houses nationally as of Monday. None of those cases were reported at the Texarkana facility that housed Nagin, though the facility has been closed to visitors.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, which secured Nagin’s conviction, is generally not consulted in such cases and was not consulted in the case of Nagin, according to U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser.
Strasser, a defense attorney when Nagin was prosecuted, said he could not comment on Nagin’s release because he represented the retailer Home Depot over its dealings with the mayor in the City Hall case.
Matt Coman, a lead federal prosecutor in the Nagin trial who now does private defense work, declined to comment on Nagin’s early release. Robert Jenkins, Nagin's lawyer at trial, did not return phone messages.
As is often true in complex white-collar cases, Nagin’s conviction was secured with the help of testimony from a range of co-conspirators, all of whom got more lenient treatment because of their contributions. All of them have already been released as a result.
That group includes:
* Rodney Williams, who was co-owner of an engineering firm that got a raft of contracts after bribing Nagin. Williams was sentenced to a year in federal prison and got out in 2015.
* Frank Fradella, who was the target of a separate federal investigation into a multi-million-dollar scheme to defraud people who invested in the disaster-construction firm he ran. Fradella bribed Nagin in hopes of landing a big city contract that he never got. But his testimony helped get him off the hook for the bribes and the stock fraud, and he wound up serving one year as well. He was released from prison in 2016.
* Michael McGrath, who faced a 14-year sentence for a massive and unrelated $140 million mortgage fraud scheme in New Jersey when he told investigators he had played a role in passing bribes from Fradella to Nagin. He testified at Nagin’s trial, clad in an orange jumpsuit. The effort got his prison time cut in half; he was released from prison in 2016.
* Mark St. Pierre, a key tech vendor at City Hall during the Nagin administration who went to trial in 2011 on charges that he paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Greg Meffert, Nagin’s chief technology officer, in exchange for a steady stream of city contracts. St. Pierre was originally sentenced to 17 years in prison, but that was cut to five after he cooperated against Nagin.
* Meffert, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to taking bribes from St. Pierre. Meffert was a key witness at St. Pierre’s trial and again at Nagin’s, and his efforts were rewarded by the government. He wound up with a 30-month sentence instead of the eight years called for by federal guidelines. He got out of prison in 2017.
Mike Magner, who prosecuted a number of corruption cases before becoming a defense lawyer, said it’s commonplace for federal corruption cases to employ such an approach, where a particular public official is seen as the top target. It’s also common for those tactics to raise eyebrows, as cooperating witnesses who may have committed serious crimes benefit from the government’s zeal to punish the public official who happens to be in their crosshairs.
“We rely on discretion and the good judgment of prosecutors to make those plea agreements and deals in a way that serves society’s interest,” Magner said. “Generally speaking, prosecutors will deal most harshly with a corrupt public official because that is the ultimate goal of prosecuting these cases. And oftentimes federal prosecutors are criticized for it.”
The goal in such cases is to send a message about public corruption in order to dissuade others from doing it, Magner and other prosecutors said. The question is how much punishment is necessary to achieve that end.
In Nagin’s case, federal guidelines called for a sentence of 15 to 20 years, and prosecutors at the time asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan for an “upward departure” — to go beyond the 20 years, for a variety of reasons.
Berrigan, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, demurred, instead giving Nagin 10 years. Had the BOP not cut his sentence short, he would have been eligible for release in 2023 after serving 85% of his sentence.
A fair number of observers were irked by the leniency at the time, and Nagin’s early release also spurred a social media backlash in some quarters.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commisison, a private anti-corruption watchdog group, was among those who would have liked to see Nagin serve out his sentence.
“I'm thinking he probably received more consideration from the federal Bureau of Prisons than he gave to the people of the city of New Orleans when he committed the corrupt acts that sent him to the penitentiary,” Goyeneche said.
He added: “The damage that was done cannot be adequately explained by just calling it a nonviolent act, because the corruption that he committed affected everybody directly or indirectly in the city of New Orleans at a time when New Orleans was its most vulnerable, recovering from Hurricane Katrina.”
But others, including some of the lawyers in the City Hall case, say that sentences of a decade or more are not necessary to make those points.
“He did his time. He did 5½ years,” Eddie Castaing, who defended St. Pierre, said of Nagin. “He paid his debt to society. We don’t need anything else. That’s enough.”
Randy Smith, who defended both Meffert and Fradella, had a similar view.
“My clients were able to help bring Nagin to justice and obtain his conviction,” Smith said. “But justice doesn’t demand extremely long sentences. Five and a half years is about 2,000 days and nights in prison, which is a lot of time.”
The damage goes way beyond time behind bars, Smith added.
“I also think Nagin was disgraced and financially ruined from his crimes, as were my clients,” he said. “It doesn’t take that much time in jail to send that message.”