MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was the face of his city leading up to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and in the hairy days and weeks that followed. You might have wondered what happened to him after his term in office came to an end. Well, almost nine years after the hurricane, he's facing a personal storm. He's now on trial on federal corruption charges. Jury selection began Monday.
We wanted to hear more about it, so we've called Eileen Fleming. She's a reporter at member station WWNO in New Orleans, and she's joining us now to talk about the case. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
EILEEN FLEMING: Oh, you're very welcome, Michel.
MARTIN: So can you take us back to the beginning? What exactly does the government say he did?
FLEMING: The government is alleging in 21 counts in an indictment that they filed last January that the mayor took bribes, free vacations, sweet deals for his personal granite company that this family owned in exchange for city contracts. And he personally profited from this - didn't report the income to the IRS. It's quite a complicated case.
MARTIN: How did this matter come to light according to the government's version of events?
FLEMING: When I arrived in 2008, the mayor had a national reputation as being the leader of the city during this terrible time of Katrina. But three years later, he was embroiled, battling with the local media here because people were questioning, why is the mayor stonewalling these requests for information? And then there was a general sense, why is the recovery taking so long?
MARTIN: He's pleaded not guilty, which is why there is a trial.
MARTIN: But has he had any other public statements, or have his attorneys made any other public statements or discussed what his case will be? How will he refute these charges?
FLEMING: His attorney has spoken a little bit to local reporters saying that, you know, look, they're going to fight this. This is not a slam dunk case. They're optimistic. But the mayor himself has not said really anything at all about this case. I follow him on Twitter, and he posts occasionally inspirational messages. And that's it.
MARTIN: You alluded to the fact that he definitely achieved a national profile around the time of Hurricane Katrina because he was so aggressive in seeking federal aid and pointing out that people weren't - that in his view, were not kind of responding quickly enough to this crisis.
MARTIN: But he also subsequently became - was perceived, I think, both locally and nationally as a very polarizing figure. In fact, I just want to play a short clip. This is one of the things that people may remember that he said after Katrina that was in the course of his reelection efforts that kind of stuck in a lot of peoples craw. Here it is.
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RAY NAGIN: We, as black people, it's time. It's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be - a chocolate New Orleans.
MARTIN: There are people who interpreted that as him saying the city should be restored to what it was, which is kind of a center of African-American culture, you know, and life. Other people saw he was just playing racial politics to kind of save his own skin because he was not, you know, receiving plaudits for the pace of the reconstruction. How do you recall that being viewed there?
FLEMING: People pretty much were kind of shrugging it like, oh, there goes Ray Nagin again. But I think it showed just how desperate he was becoming to be reelected because he had strong, strong community support from the white community and the black community when he was first elected in 2002. And interestingly enough, he was elected as a reform candidate to fight business corruption, to bring transparency to government. And then after Katrina, he started to become really paranoid.
MARTIN: That speaks to my point, though, Eileen, is that one person's paranoia is another person's common sense. Sometimes, people with different backgrounds can have very different views of the same set of facts. Does his point of view reflect a point of view that still exists?
FLEMING: Well, he did have of course problems with the federal responses. You know, anybody would. But I don't think the black community would disagree with him in a lot of those respects that if this was, say, the Garden District, if this was St. Charles Avenue, there'd be a much faster response than there is to the Lower Ninth Ward. That persists today that the recovery dollars that were sent down here have not been spent equally among the communities that are in most need. This came up actually at a mayoral forum. We're electing a new mayor this week, and at a forum for him in the Lower Ninth Ward, folks are still mad.
MARTIN: I guess the question is, is this trial - bringing it to the present day - is Ray Nagin being seen as a symbol of something, or are these perceived as his own personal problems?
FLEMING: One person said, this is an embarrassment to the city. And I think folks are just about done with Ray Nagin. They think that he did his best during the storm. He tried, and then he just succumbed to this corruption because in one of the towns, for instance, Home Depot was going to build a huge store. And it did in a neighborhood here that is impoverished. And one of the regulations was they had to hire local folks and pay them more and give them preferential treatment. The mayor is accused of letting Home Depot out of that regulation in exchange for his family's kitchen countertop - granite countertop company getting the exclusive contract to work out of that store. And that's seen as pretty much as a betrayal. There's no one that's really rallying to his side.
MARTIN: Is there any talk of changing the venue for the trial given that he is such a polarizing figure?
FLEMING: You know, he never asked. Perhaps he's thinking, you know, he can do better with local folks.
MARTIN: How long is the trial expected to last? And I do want to note there are no court proceedings today because you're expecting some heavy weather later. So we do hope you will fare well through that. You're expecting some ice and snow, and that's not something that that area is used to dealing with very often.
MARTIN: So people are kind of hunkered down.
MARTIN: How long is the whole thing supposed to last?
FLEMING: The judge in this case has decided she thinks it's going to take about two weeks. And the first day, jury selection was moving along pretty well. They called about 200 folks, and then they interviewed them in groups of 16 - about 16 each. And they were asked the usual questions - do you have strong feelings about the mayor? And then they lead a list of witnesses. And this being New Orleans, people know people. And some people on the panel did know some of the potential witnesses, and then they went back and forth at the bench out of earshot of the reporters covering that. So I don't think anyone was actually selected, but it's the early days.
MARTIN: And finally, before we let you - one of the things that gotten some attention that the judge is being very strict about electronic devices being barred from the courtroom...
MARTIN: ...Even the restrooms on the floor of the courthouse...
MARTIN: ...Where the trial is taking place will be closed to...
MARTIN: ...Members of the media and the public during the voir dire proceedings, which this jury-vetting that you were talking about. What's all that about?
FLEMING: We have several corruption trials going on here in New Orleans. And one of the cases involves a juror who overheard something in an elevator and then changed the way they voted on a panel. So judges are really antsy at this point about mixing the public and the media with potential jurors and jurors. So I can see why they want to keep us apart. But, good heavens. We have to leave our equipment, our laptops, our cell phones, everything on a separate floor. We can't get anywhere near these folks.
MARTIN: All right, Eileen Fleming is a reporter at member station WWNO in New Orleans, and she was kind enough to join us by phone from New Orleans. Eileen, thanks so much for bringing us up to date. Keep us posted, if you will.
FLEMING: I will indeed. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.