If you were to poll the American population for those professions that elicited in ordinary people instinctive suspicion and even visceral loathing, you would probably find lawyers and nursing-home operators near the top of the list. Money-sucking leeches preying on the desperate and helpless probably sums up the common view.
“Flood of Lies” brings these two despised professions together in a riveting true-life story about Hurricane Katrina, the deaths of 35 elderly nursing home residents and the negligent homicide trial that eventually followed. On the dust jacket, John Berendt calls the book “an emotional edge-of-your-seat thriller,” and the author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” isn’t exaggerating. But “Flood of Lies” is also dispiriting, an in-your-face close-up on the pettiness and prejudices of our judicial system. As the author, James A. Cobb Jr., writes: “In America, in spite of slogans like ‘Equal justice under law’ and other platitudes, if defendants don’t have money, there is nothing equal about the justice they receive.”
Here is what happened:
As Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans in 2005, the owners of St. Rita’s Nursing Home decided to “shelter in place.” Sal and Mabel Mangano, along with their grown children, laid in supplies, bought new backup generators, hunkered down and prepared to weather another tropical storm, just as they had done periodically during the previous 20 years. But this time, levees gave way, and a mini-tsunami swept across St. Bernard Parish, where their elder-care residence was located. When the wall of water slammed into St. Rita’s, the people who were able to reach the roof survived. The Mangano family managed to save 24 of their charges, but 35 residents were drowned in their wheelchairs and beds.
In the weeks after Katrina, rumors quickly spread that Sal and Mabel Mangano had been too venal, too miserly to bus their residents to another, safer facility and risk losing all that luscious Medicare and Medicaid income. Hadn’t the three other nursing homes in St. Bernard Parish all evacuated? It was even said that only days after the tragedy these two heartless monsters went on a buying spree in a shopping mall. Other accounts put them on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, happily enjoying a vacation cruise.
In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans was emotionally as well as physically devastated. Angry and hurt people wanted to lash out, to vent their rage — and in the Manganos they found the perfect target. The aging couple might have been working-class to begin with, but they had grown rich from their nursing-home profits. Responding to the volatile mood of the time, grandstanding Louisiana Attorney General, Charles C. Foti Jr. filed charges of negligent homicide on behalf of each of the victims. To most people, including the local news media, it seemed an open-and-shut case.
So much for background.
To prove their innocence, the Manganos hired an attorney named Jim Cobb. Most of Cobb’s practice he somewhat shamefully describes as “dirty work,” mainly spent defending and protecting the interests of big corporations. While not a criminal lawyer, per se, he did have connections with the nursing-home industry and, almost on impulse, agreed to take the case. In “Flood of Lies” Cobb — a profane, hard-drinking New Orleans resident with a racy prose style — tells the story of what happened as he and his partners prepared to defend the Manganos in court.