NEW ORLEANS – Irvin Mayfield, the jazz trumpet player who became a symbol of New Orleans resilience after Hurricane Katrina, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Wednesday for steering charity money meant for public libraries to his personal use.
Mayfield's musical and business partner, pianist Ronald Markham, also was sentenced to 18 months Wednesday in federal court. Both pleaded guilty last November to a single charge of conspiracy to commit fraud. Both are to report to prison on Jan. 5, although appeals of the sentence are possible. Both are to provide 500 hours of community service — music lessons for underprivileged children — when free.
Prosecutors said Mayfield and Markham, both 43, steered more than $1.3 million from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation to themselves, largely by funneling it through the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which Mayfield founded.
“I have really grappled over this because of the potential you have, the wonderful things you have done for the community," U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey told Mayfield as he announced the sentence. Zainey said he had to balance the need to punish a serious crime that unfolded over six years with the need for the musicians to get back to work, make restitution and return to community service for which both were held in high esteem.
Mayfield, addressing the court before he was sentenced, apologized to the library foundation, its donors and the New Orleans community. He acknowledged the library as a place where he first was able to listen to jazz records as a child. That brought one of several interruptions from Zainey.
“The very library that got you your start … you ripped off,” Zainey said. At one point, Zainey told Mayfield to turn and address the courtroom, where Mayfield’s supporters and supporters of the library system sat. “I hope you accept my apology. I accept 100% responsibility,” Mayfield told the audience.
Attorneys for the foundation, while not speaking on what kind of sentence Mayfield and Markham should get, said the damage done went beyond the $1.3 million. The scandal, they said, also seriously damaged the foundation's reputation and fund-raising ability.
Supporters of Mayfield included former New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass. Compass urged that Mayfield be spared prison time so he can continue to care for his disabled mother and an autistic older brother. “He still fixes his brother’s food like he did when he was a little kid,” Compass said.
Defense attorney Claude Kelly said nothing would be gained by sending Mayfield to prison for a non-violent crime. He pointed to Mayfield's mentoring of young musicians and other community development efforts led by the musician and said Mayfield has “and incredible capacity to really make it right.”
Arguing for the maximum five years, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dall Kammer said failing to sentence the two to prison would be “a classic example of white collar criminals getting a slap on the wrist.”
“Book One," an album by Mayfield and the Jazz Orchestra, won a Grammy in 2010. But the library foundation scandal led to his resignation as artistic director of the orchestra in 2016 while scrutiny of his role with the library grew following investigative reports by WWL-TV.
Mayfield was among musicians who took a high-profile role in promoting New Orleans after levee failures and catastrophic flooding during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mayfield's father died in the floodwaters.
Mayfield was also a founding member of the Afro-Caribbean jazz ensemble Los Hombres Calientes.
Prosecutors said that in addition to orchestra operating expenses and salaries for Mayfield and Markham, library foundation money went into Mayfield’s personal bank accounts and toward the purchase of a gold-plated trumpet.
Prior to his indictment and guilty plea, Mayfield had outlined grand plans for the city's libraries in an AP interview in 2008.
“A library is democracy inside four walls, the freedom to information,” he said then. “Jazz is democracy we hear.”