Thursday, July 03, 2014

"Suspicions grew"

Stacey Jackson pleaded guilty Wednesday to accepting kickbacks from contractors her non-profit hired to do remediation work that was never actually performed on flood damaged homes after Katrina.
Jackson, 47, was the focus of prosecutors' five-year investigation of the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership program, the troubled non-profit that she ran as its executive director. She eventually became another black eye for Nagin, whom a jury convicted of 20 corruption charges in February. He is scheduled to be sentenced July 9.
NOAH wasn't only "another black eye for Nagin" amid the various instances of corruption for which he was prosecuted. (Nagin wasn't charged with anything relating to NOAH anyway.)  It was the moment at which the local press.. and possibly federal investigators.. started to take these kinds of allegations against the Nagin administration seriously.

It's remarkably difficult to put yourself back in that time even now but back in 2007-2008 the conventional wisdom communicated through the daily news about Nagin was still wrapped up in his image as an innovative, reforming, businessman... an image the Times-Picayune had invested much in crafting and selling to voters in 2002.
Ray Nagin was a largely unknown businessman who was polling at 2 percent in his campaign for mayor before The Times-Picayune editorial board, of which I was and am a member, endorsed his candidacy. The endorsement, which was printed earlier than usual, helped give the erstwhile long shot some legitimacy.

The already revised history tells us the turning point came when Nagin delivered his stupid (but also overblown and misunderstood)  "Chocolate City" speech on MLK Day in 2006.   And it's true that this was a political turning point for Nagin.  It signaled a new and more populist reelection strategy as Nagin surely knew many of his moneyed, white backers "some people Uptown" were about to abandon him. But the press was considerably slower to turn on him.

And by "turn on him" I mean give credence to the mounting evidence that the phony they created out of whole cloth was... well.. a phony.

But, as the story says here, "suspicions grew."
Federal agents stormed NOAH's offices in August 2008 as suspicions grew that little to no work had been done at hundreds of properties assigned to the agency. What followed led to guilty pleas from four contractors, including Jackson's cousin, Richard Hall. Hall stood accused of stealing $117,000 from NOAH while performing few of the house repairs he was hired to do. He admitted his guilt in 2012, but he did not admit kicking cash back to Jackson.
How and when did the suspicions grow?  Not relevant to the story, apparently.  But for fun,  let's check the other paper to see if they know.
Jackson’s crimes were committed while she was serving as director of New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, a city-supported nonprofit program that Nagin made the centerpiece of an anti-blight campaign.

The agency hired private companies to gut and board up some of the tens of thousands of properties damaged in Katrina and its aftermath. Media reports at the time revealed that many of the properties the city had paid to remediate in fact got little or no attention and remained in shockingly bad condition.

Rather than acknowledging the problems in the city-administered grant program, Nagin reacted angrily toward the news media as critical stories unspooled, a move that did lasting damage to his relationship with the public. His image was tarnished further by the fact that his brother-in-law, Cedric Smith, was a leading contractor for NOAH, although Smith never was charged with any wrongdoing.
"Media reports at the time" likely refers to the WWLTV's investigation of NOAH.  Lee Zurik in particular seemed to get under the Mayor's skin. It was to WWL cameras that Nagin made his famous "cold cocking" threat.  Zurik deserves the credit he's received for picking up and running with this story. It's the story that made his reputation as an investigative journalist; one he still trades on today.

But Zurik didn't "break" the NOAH story.  Then-amateur investigator Karen Gadbois did. The WWLTV series became a collaboration between Zurik and Karen and a few researchers working with her Nagin would later deride as "council sponsored college students turned spies." (scroll down to page 7 of this PDF)

God bless you

Karen would go on to jump into professionalism herself and found The Lens which still sort of does some spying despite appearing to be out of money lately. (Must have lost that council sponsorship. You can help with that.)

It's a shame, though, that the critical role she and her associated "dangerous people of the internet," as Advocate publisher John Georges calls them, played in the unraveling of the Ray Nagin myth seems to have been written out of the official history.

Update: Turns out NOLA Defender credited Karen Gadbois. Good on them. 

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