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The man who was the face and the voice of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was indicted today by a federal grand jury. He is former Mayor Ray Nagin. Prosecutors alleged Nagin used his office for personal gain. Among the charges: that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, and was given free trips from contractors in exchange for city business. Most of this happened as New Orleans struggled to recover from Katrina.
NPR's Russell Lewis joins us now from member station WWNO. And, Russell, to begin, what exactly are the prosecutors saying happened? How did this bribery and kickback scheme allegedly work?
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: You know, it's a complicated matrix as, you know, as these things often are. Prosecutors say the scheme started in 2004. It involved the awarding of city contracts and favorable treatment. You know, some of it, though, was not big ticket corruption. One company owner is alleged to have paid cellphone bills for the mayor's family and flown Nagin to Saints football playoff games.
The indictment also accuses Nagin of accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and a truckload of free granite for his family business. The government says this was in exchange for Nagin promoting the interests of the businessman who ended up getting millions of dollars in city contract work after Katrina in 2005.
CORNISH: Now, does Ray Nagin's indictment actually come as a surprise?
LEWIS: No, not really. People here really had been expecting this for months. In fact, five of his associates and people named in the indictment have either already pleaded guilty or were convicted, and they pledged to testify against Nagin. But here's the thing, Nagin was elected in 2002. He was swept into office because he said he was not a politician. He was a cable TV executive who pledged to bring a businessman's savvy to the mayor's office. And he even said that he wanted root out public corruption.
CORNISH: And then this is alleged to have happened while Nagin was dealing with Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, right?
LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, you know, he really made a name for himself. You might remember some of those news conferences he held as that massive storm approached New Orleans. He warned residents. He told them to evacuate. And then after the storm swamped and overwhelmed the levee and floodwall system, he pleaded for federal help and even cursed the federal government during one radio interview where he demanded, ordered help almost.
You know, that outspokenness also got him into trouble. There was one point in 2006 where he predicted that when New Orleans rebuilt, it would once again become a chocolate city and that God was mad at America. Nagin, though, he was re-elected in 2006, just a year after Katrina, despite criticism of his post-hurricane leadership, which some viewed as too slow and bogged down in bureaucracy. But he had a - he was a huge advocate for rebuilding the city despite calls from some around the country to basically abandon the place.
CORNISH: Unfortunately, public corruption is nothing new in New Orleans or Louisiana. What are people saying about it today?
LEWIS: You know, interestingly, you know, there have been no news conferences today, not from city officials, not prosecutors. The current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, did release a statement that basically said, quoting, that this is a "sad day for the city of New Orleans and that public corruption cannot and will not be tolerated." You know, there have been any number of elected officials and city employees in New Orleans over the years who have been mired in public corruption scandals. And, on some levels, people just come to expect it here.
CORNISH: So what's happening next in this case?
LEWIS: Well, Ray Nagin, he's got a court date, January 31st at the federal courthouse here in New Orleans. He'll be expected to enter a plea to these charges. If convicted, Nagin would face decades in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
CORNISH: NPR's Russell Lewis in New Orleans. Russell, thank you.
LEWIS: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.