Ray Nagin’s friends, family ask judge for mercy in sentencing

Nearly three dozen relatives, friends and former employees of Ray Nagin have written letters urging U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to show mercy to the ex-mayor when she sentences him on corruption charges July 9.

The 32 letters cite a raft of reasons the judge should show leniency, ranging from Nagin’s honesty, good character and strong Christian beliefs to the misconduct scandal that plagued the U.S. Attorney’s Office that prosecuted him, the travails of having to lead the city during its darkest hours and the self-serving motives of some of Nagin’s accomplices-turned-government witnesses.

“Hurricane Katrina affected Ray Nagin like many of us, spiritually, emotionally and mentally,” wrote Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Pastor Fred Luter Jr., a sometime Nagin adviser who is wrapping up a term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“He is a good and decent man who made some unwise choices and decisions during a very difficult and traumatic time in his personal and professional life.”

Nagin, 58, who was convicted of taking bribes and gifts from several city contractors, is staring at what his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, has described as a “virtual life sentence.” While a presentence investigation prepared by federal probation officers remains sealed, Jenkins has indicated in court filings that the report calls for the ex-mayor to receive a sentence of at least 20 years.

Tania Tetlow, a former federal prosecutor and Tulane University law professor, said she estimates the guidelines would call for a sentence of either roughly 20 to 24 years or 16 to 20 years, depending on whether Berrigan finds that Nagin perjured himself on the witness stand.

Such a lengthy sentence would serve no one, many of Nagin’s supporters argue.

Julie Schwam Harris, a longtime city employee who served as Nagin’s director of intergovernmental affairs, wrote that she did not dispute Nagin committed crimes but pleaded with the judge to view those crimes in the context of a city and a man scarred by Katrina.

“An overlong sentence will not serve the community harmed by any of the wrongdoing,” she wrote. “Nagin has paid and will continue to pay by whatever time he spends in prison and for the rest of his life outside.”

A number of Nagin backers sought to persuade Berrigan that Nagin was misunderstood and has been unfairly vilified by the press and the public.

“Judge Berrigan, I am writing you to say the ‘monster man’ that was created in the public during his recent trial by the prosecution is not the man I met and observed during his tenure as mayor,” wrote Pastor Frank A. Davis III, of Bibleway Missionary Baptist Church, who served on Nagin’s transition team for his second term.

Pat Smith, Nagin’s longtime scheduler, said she felt her old boss’ biggest mistake was putting trust in untrustworthy people, in particular Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert, who wound up pleading guilty to bribery charges and testifying against Nagin.

“I believe that unbeknownst to the mayor the tech director saw an opportunity for him to capitalize on a situation and hired people that he had personal relationships with and began to display a behavior of cockiness,” she wrote, adding: “The mayor not being a politician was very green to politics and was led astray.”

Several writers — including the mayor’s sisters and parents — cited as a mitigating factor the online-commenting scandal that shook the U.S. Attorney’s Office starting in 2012, while Nagin was under federal investigation. The scandal led two top prosecutors, as well as the office’s longtime leader, Jim Letten, to resign, and it spawned internal probes whose findings have been kept under wraps.

“It is a travesty that the public has not been made aware of the findings of this investigation,” a letter signed by Nagin’s parents and two sisters said in part. “We feel that until all the findings are made public, justice cannot be served and the possibility of fairness in C. Ray Nagin’s corruption case is not possible.”

Beverly McKenna, publisher of the New Orleans Tribune, suggested that Nagin, who is black, is being treated unfairly because of his race. She cited the Justice Department’s decision to abandon a broad probe into landfill owner Fred Heebe, who is white, amid the commenting scandal.

“I cannot help but look at our judicial system with a jaundiced eye when a rich, white businessman is able to use his wealth and power to crush the government’s case against him or as those individuals sworn to uphold our laws are exposed for prosecutorial misconduct but face no punishment for their actions, which certainly cross the boundaries of what is legal in my opinion,” McKenna wrote.

“Yet that same government entity that folds for Fred Heebe and fails to bring two of its own — (prosecutors) Jan Mann and Sal Perricone — to justice for what I believe are indeed crimes, wants to be praised and lauded for its intense prosecution of Ray Nagin for what has always appeared to me to be a mishmash of reckless, rash indiscretions.”

Perhaps the most affecting letter came from Nagin’s young grandson, Cino Nagin, who wrote: “My name is Cino. I have the Best grandfather in the whole world. I call him Pops. He reads a lot. He taught me how to tie my shoes. But my favorite is when he buys me snowballs and doughnuts. He cleans up my toys and I Love him.”

Letters submitted on a defendant’s behalf are typically noted — and sometimes even quoted — by a judge at sentencing, but whether they play a crucial role in the punishment the judge metes out is debatable.

Herbert Larson, a veteran defense attorney, said that while judges are no longer strictly bound by federal sentencing guidelines, the sentences they impose often are overturned by appellate courts if they are not within the range the guidelines specify. Judges tend to have broad discretion as long as they stay within the range.

Were the sentence to land outside of that range, “the appeals court will likely set it aside and say, ‘No, that was an abuse of your discretion,’ ” Larson said.

In Larson’s view, a convicted defendant’s best bet for getting a reduced sentence is to make substantive arguments about how the range was calculated, because there are gray areas. But Jenkins, in a recent motion asking Berrigan for a downward departure from the guidelines, made no such arguments, instead simply suggesting that the guidelines are overly punitive in Nagin’s case and citing Nagin’s strong family and religious values and good character.

Such emotional appeals generally don’t go anywhere, Larson said.

“Every defendant has a family, and if you don’t, you’re an orphan and we should feel sorry for you,” he said.

He speculated there could be room for argument about the way the presentence report calculated the guidelines. For instance, Larson noted that it may have recommended stiffer penalties for Nagin based on his “leadership” in a scheme that involved five or more people. Tetlow, in her calculation, believes it should.

But Larson said he would argue that even though Nagin was convicted of conspiring with at least half a dozen people, the group arguably didn’t conspire as a whole. That point, forcefully made, could reduce Nagin’s exposure, he said.

Likewise, while it’s unknown whether the presentence report assigned Nagin additional “points” for lying on the stand, Jenkins could certainly argue there’s no evidence he did.

Jenkins did not return a call seeking comment Friday afternoon.

Staff writer Martha Carr contributed to this report. Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.