NEW ORLEANS — When Ray Nagin was elected mayor in 2002, there was real hope that he was a break from the city’s sleazy past.
Three years later, his city awash in foul water and rotting corpses after Hurricane Katrina, he became something of a national cult hero, raging against the slow, incompetent federal response.
‘‘Excuse my French — everybody in America — but I am pissed,’’ he shouted during a radio appearance three days after the storm.
In the end, though, Nagin turned out to be a feckless mayor and, as a federal judge saw it, a lightweight criminal.
‘‘He started out as a rock star and he ended up as just another crass, corrupt politician,’’ said Ed Chervenak, a University of New Orleans political science professor.
Nagin, 58, a former cable TV manager, was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday for bribery, money laundering, fraud, and tax violations stemming from two terms as mayor from 2002 to 2010.
Prosecutors had pushed for a sentence of about 20 years for Nagin, convicted in February on 20 counts. The crimes, his repeated lies about them, the damage heaped on a city reeling from Katrina, and a reputation for corruption — all merited more prison time, prosecutors said.
US District Judge Helen Berrigan acknowledged the seriousness, including the betrayal of a city when it most needed a strong and honest leader. But she also cast Nagin as something less than a kingpin. She noted some businessmen involved in bribing him won millions of dollars in city business. Nagin is believed to have cleared about a half million — in money, free trips, granite for a foundering family business — over his eight years.
‘‘Mr. Nagin was not the organizer or leader of the group,’’ Berrigan said. At times, she said, the crimes appeared to be motivated by a desire to impress and provide for his loved ones, something ‘‘less than ordinary greed.’’
Soon after he took office, Nagin announced a crackdown on corruption in the auto inspection and taxi agencies. But there was little to distinguish his first term until Katrina hit. He won reelection months after the storm, on the strength of his appeal to black voters fearful of being muscled out of the recovery. But his decline had begun.
‘‘He would make announcements about some project, but never really follow through,’’ Chervenak said.
Prosecutors say he took his first bribe before Katrina and the pace picked up when millions in city-controlled storm recovery work was available.