By Bob Allen
The immediate past president of the Southern Baptist Convention sought leniency for former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, convicted in February on 20 criminal counts including bribery, fraud and money laundering, in a letter in the case file shown to reporters June 20 in a judge’s chambers.
Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, wrote one of 31 letters of support — five written by clergy — in advance of Nagin’s sentencing on July 9.
Luter, the first African-American SBC president, said he has known Nagin since high school, and that he wasn’t the same person after Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city in August 2005.
“We saw it on television, heard it on the radio, and read about it in our local newspapers,” said Luter, who presided over the recent SBC annual meeting in Baltimore. “Hurricane Katrina affected Ray Nagin like many of us spiritually, emotionally and mentally.”
Luter asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to consider that context and grant Nagin leniency.
“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,” Luter said.
Luter was one of 17 business and civic leaders chosen in October 2005 for a Bring New Orleans Back Commission to advise Nagin on rebuilding New Orleans after what is considered the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history.
A federal grand jury indictment in January 2013 alleged that while in office Nagin took cash bribes and gifts from three city contractors and used his influence as mayor to land a contract for his family’s business with Home Depot to install granite and marble countertops.
A federal jury convicted Nagin Feb. 12 of 20 of the 21 counts against him in the indictment. Nagin maintained his innocence to reporters on the way out of the courtroom.
Nagin was initially set to be sentenced June 11, his 58th birthday, but the judge granted a request to delay the hearing to give Nagin’s attorney more time to prepare. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could be facing at least 20 years in prison, a term his lawyer called “a virtual life sentence” and asked the judge for leniency.
Luter sat next to President George W. Bush at a dinner celebrating recovery efforts on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2007, joining Nagin and other dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees at a New Orleans restaurant.
When Luter was elected to his first of two one-year terms as SBC president in 2012, Nagin called him “an amazing man and an amazing story.”
“He was a street preacher first, and now he has built this incredible congregation,” Nagin said. “And he is going to be president of Southern Baptists. I mean if that is not God at work, then I don’t know what you can say other than it is absolutely amazing.”
Luter stepped into a controversy in 2006, when Nagin apologized for claiming that Hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on American involvement in Iraq and violence within black communities.
Critics compared the statement to comments by Dwight McKissic, senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, at a 2005 Texas Restoration Project gathering raising the question of whether “at some point, God will hold us accountable for our sins.”
“They have devil worship,” McKissic said. “They advertise ‘Sin City’ tours. They celebrate Southern decadence. Girls go wild in New Orleans.”
“Sometimes God does not speak through natural phenomena,” McKissic said. “This may have nothing to do with God being offended by homosexuality, but possibly it does.”
Luter told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in a story published Jan. 18 2006: “It’s a hurricane. It happened. We got the brunt of it because the levees broke, but in no way is that a sign that God is angry with New Orleans.”