Book Review | Landfall by Greg Meffert

We missed having Greg Meffert a.k.a. “Muppet” (a nickname coined by the blogger Jason Brad Berry of American Zombie) to kick around. For those unfamiliar, Meffert was, notoriously, former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s righthand man and tech-fixer whose crooked antics landed himself, his former business partner, and his boss in the slammer. The former mayor, inmate number 32751-034, is still languishing in a low-security federal prison in Texarkana, where he will likely remain until at least May 25, 2023, two weeks before his 67th birthday. Meffert, however, was freed from federal custody not long ago, after serving thirty months for bribery. He had pleaded guilty to receiving $860,000 in bribes when he served as Nagin’s Chief Technology Officer, a reward for steering more than $4 million in city contracts to a company owned by Mark St. Pierre. He avoided a much harsher sentence by flipping on both St. Pierre and his old boss. At his sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman called Meffert a “once-in-a-decade cooperating witness.” (St. Pierre ultimately also became a cooperating witness against Nagin and had his 17 year sentence reduced to 5 years). What does a freed fixer do after being sprung from jail? Write his memoirs and then give interviews to two of the reporters who helped nail him: Gordon Russell of The Advocate and David Hammer of WWL. Meffert has bills to pay and scores to settle, after all.

[dropcap]M[/dropcap] effert’s book is called Landfall, and it landed with a thud in my lap. It’s self-published and appears to be self-edited as well (similar to Nagin’s self-published memoir Katrina’s Secrets). Meffert has a hard time keeping his story straight; at times, he admits to responsibility and criminal liability, at other times, he blames everyone but himself. He’s as bad a buck-passer as he was a fixer. “It’s hard to say how much I infected Ray Nagin and how much Ray infected me,” he writes in the book’s opening pages. The tone of the book is inconsistent and off-putting, a bizarre combination of braggadocio and self-pity. Meffert fancies himself a funny man. He spends much of the book trying to endear himself to readers with attempts at humor. Muppet’s comedic style, such as it is, is to throw jokes at the wall and hope that they stick. Only a few jokes make landfall: Most of Meffert’s one-liners might work in a bar but not on the printed page. He does not have a future as comedy writer. Meffert believes that he’s a fascinating character, sort of an every-nerd made good. He spends the first 60+ pages of Landfall bragging about his business success and his ability to recover from a hangover, which IDs him as a Tulane graduate. “That’s the story I want to tell here,” Meffert explains in the book’s prologue, “(A) mayonaisse kid from a Texas suburb who ends up the notorious confidant to a celebrity mayor in the midst of the worst urban disaster in the country’s history.” In addition to making me queasy, the combination nearly sinks the beginning of the book. I impatiently awaited the first real appearance of C. Ray Nagin. It did not come until page 65 in a chapter titled “Second Coming.” I am not making this up.

Meffert was smitten with C. Ray upon first meeting him. I almost expected him to offer to shave, wax, and shine Hizzoner’s bald pate. He does, however, overstate the extent to which New Orleans fell in love with Nagin in 2002. The white business establishment glommed on to him: they recognized him as a hustler who would do their bidding as long as they allowed him to shimmy up the greasy pole of success. I held my nose and voted for him in 2002 because Dollar Bill Jefferson was pulling the strings on his opponent’s campaign, and I knew they’d steal everything in sight. It turns out that Team Nagin did it instead. Additionally, I’ve never been enamored of the whole “I’ll run government like a business” shtick. It did not work locally, and it’s failing catastrophically on the national level. Heckuva job, Trumpy. Meffert spends part of the book bragging about his accomplishments as Chief Technology Officer. To be fair, the city did make some progress on the digital front under Meffert. But he spends this part of the book settling scores with enemies and speaking contemptuously about city employees, the vast majority of whom are African-American. I rarely use the term “white privilege,” but to paraphrase Bob Marley “if the cap fit, let him wear it.” The best part of Landfall is Meffert’s account of his experiences during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood. I’m a sucker for such stories, and Meffert’s don’t disappoint, even if he’s an unreliable narrator. He admits to doing a bit of looting to help supply his City Hall cohort in their hide-out at the Downtown Hyatt. There was much talk back then of Beer Looter Dude, Meffert was Printer Looter Dude. He even claims to have cussed out Vice President Cheney, but I’m skeptical about that story. It sounds like wishful thinking to me. Despite Meffert’s worshipful tone, Nagin comes off badly when they were hunkered down after the storm. C. Ray insisted on staying in a penthouse crib on the 27th floor of a building without power. He insisted that all and sundry climb the stairs for a Mayoral audience. He also took a vacation at the height of the crisis thereby earning himself the nickname, Dallas Ray. Heckuva job, Ray Ray. I met C. Ray Nagin several times when he was in office. I was a neighborhood leader and attended meetings with him both pre and post-K. I was unimpressed. He was charming, glib, and deeply shallow. He may have been the vainest man I’ve ever met. I’ve seen him stride through a hotel lobby and pause to primp in front of a mirror or even, on one memorable occasion, a chrome elevator. I am not making this up. Meffert is less forthcoming about the series of scandals that led to his downfall. He was careless, greedy, and stupid in dealing with contractors hoping to buy access to Mayor Nagin. He’s more interested in telling the story of how he obtained tickets to the Saints-Bears Championship Game after the 2007 season. It was on that flight that Meffert hooked C. Ray up with Frank Fradella who, along with Meffert, testified against Nagin at his trial on corruption charges. Meffert is bitter about being questioned by the FBI as if he were a common criminal. Sorry, dude, that’s what you were. He also has a weird idea that personal animus drove prosecutors Bob and Jan Mann to go after him. Wrong. Muppet was a greedy and corrupt piece of shit who was stupid enough to peripherally involve his wife, Linda, in his crimes. Meffert has gotten more loyalty than he deserves from his wife. She refused to flip on him but the feds were able to leverage charges against her to get Meffert to flip like an acrobat on Nagin. Meffert’s stint as the star witness at Nagin’s 2014 trial was unintentionally funny as I described in a blog post at the time:
Meffert rolled over on his former boss/hero a few years back and ended his life as C. Ray’s puppet, which was one reason the NOLA blogger Dambala dubbed him Muppet. Muppet was awestruck by C. Ray’s hipster douchebaggery and jumped like a bug-eyed frog every time his master’s voice told him to. Muppet’s time on the witness stand was more entertaining than a barrel of crazy monkeys as is best documented by this tweet by the aforementioned mild-mannered Journalistic bulldog, Gordon Russell: Pin msg from Meffert to Nagin: “Gordon Russell up my ass and in my shit 24/7.” #nagintrial — Gordon Russell (@GordonRussell1) January 31, 2014 and this instant classic: Meffert: “As things started to come out, I got increasingly worried. It was all kind of Velcroing to me.” #nagintrial — Gordon Russell (@GordonRussell1) January 31, 2014 Velcroing is a new concept to me and a totally preposterous one, but this trial has so many farcical elements that it’s hard to pick and choose.
Ray Nagin made the mistake of testifying at his trial, which, in addition to Meffert’s testimony, is why he was convicted and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Meffert, of course, received a reduced sentence of thirty months for testifying against the man who once called him an “Undercover Brother.” I am not making this up. One of Meffert’s few redeeming characteristics is his love of the New Orleans Saints. He sat in on most Saints related meetings at City Hall because Nagin was not a football fan; a rarity in football crazed New Orleans. I enjoyed Meffert’s account of meeting with then NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue after the storm. The Commissioner deployed his lawyerly skills and let the Mayor’s team know with a wink and a nod that the NFL would not let Tom Benson move the team to San Antonio. People have forgotten how close that came to happening. Landfall is only worth reading if you’re deeply interested in New Orleans politics, and what happened after Katrina and the Federal Flood. If that’s the case, wading through the muck of Meffert’s lousy prose, bragging, and endless self-pity is worth it. I suggest you wear some shrimp boots and bring along your BS detector.
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Peter Athas
Peter Athas has been blogging as Adrastos since 2005. He is currently one of the principal bloggers at First Draft. He is a founding member of the Spank sub-krewe of Krewe du Vieux and one of the founders of the Rising Tide Conference. He apparently has a penchant for founding things. He lives in Uptown New Orleans with his wife and two cats.