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Nagin’s trial gets underway

3rd February 2014   ·   0 Comments

With New Orleanians scrambling last week to protect their pets, pipes and plants from a late-January storm and a contentious mayoral race heating up as it entered its final stretch, some may have forgotten that the trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin also kicked off last week.

Jury selection for former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s trial on corruption charges resumed Thursday followed by opening statements, The Associated Press reported.

The jury-selection process be­gan on Monday, but a blast of winter weather forced the federal courthouse in New Orleans and the rest of the region to shut down for two days.

After questioning 60 prospective jurors on Monday, U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan said she needed to speak with one more member of the pool before the panel could be seated. She did so Thursday, allowing the case to move forward with opening statements.

Nagin is charged with accepting bribes, free trips and other gratuities from contractors in exchange for helping them secure millions of dollars in city work.

The charges in his 21-count indictment, including bribery and wire fraud, are the product of a City Hall investigation that already has resulted in several convictions or guilty pleas by former Nagin associates.

Nagin, a former New Orleans businessman and corporate executive who pledged to root out public corruption, was mayor when Hurricane Katrina stuck in 2005 and served two terms before leaving office in 2010. He was living in a Dallas suburb when a federal grand jury indicted him a year ago.

The Associated Press reported that Nagin had little to say as he entered the federal courthouse with a noticeable limp.

Each bribery count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Each wire fraud count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

The charges are the result of a sweeping City Hall corruption investigation that already has resulted in several convictions or guilty pleas by former Nagin associates.

Nagin’s 21-count indictment accuses him of accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and truckloads of free granite for his family business in exchange for promoting the interests of local businessman Frank Fradella. Nagin also was charged with accepting at least $60,000 in payoffs from another businessman, Rodney Williams, for his help in securing city contracts.

The indictment claims Nagin received free private jet and limousine services to New York from an unidentified businessman who owned a New Orleans movie theater. Nagin allegedly agreed to waive tax penalties the businessman owed to the city on a delinquent tax bill in 2006.

From several city contractors, Nagin is accused of accepting free travel and vacation expenses for trips to Hawaii, Chicago, Las Vegas and Jamaica while in office.

The allegations aren’t limited to his tenure as mayor. Prosecutors said Nagin accepted monthly payoffs from Fradella totaling $112,250 after he left office.

Aaron Bennett, a businessman awaiting sentencing in a separate bribery case, told The Times-Picayune he introduced Nagin to Fradella specifically to help the mayor get a Home Depot contract for granite installation work for a business Nagin and his sons founded. Fradella’s company received more than $4 million in city contracts for repair work at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and in the French Quarter after Katrina, the indictment says.

A political novice before he was first elected mayor in 2002, Nagin became a national figure after broken levees flooded most of the city in Katrina’s aftermath. Known for his occasionally cringe-inducing rhetoric, Nagin famously declared in 2006 that the slowly repopulating city would be “chocolate” again, playing to Black residents’ fears that they would get short shrift during the recovery process.

After Katrina, Nagin was sharply criticized by Black residents for meeting secretly with wealthy white businessmen from New Orleans in Dallas to develop a blueprint for a post-Katrina New Orleans. When asked why he was willing to meet with this small group of affluent whites, Nagin said he did so because Blacks did not participate in the New Orleans economy in a significant way.

After voters elected him to a second term, his popularity was steadily eroded by the city’s slow recovery and a mounting federal investigation of his administration.

During the jury-selection process, Berrigan told prospective jurors that they must admit any strong feelings about the often controversial Nagin. “We can’t just assume that you can be totally impartial,” she told them.

The contractors who pleaded guilty to bribing Nagin agreed to cooperate with investigators. Fradella pleaded guilty in June 2012 to conspiracy to commit bribery. Williams pleaded guilty in Decem­ber 2012 to a conspiracy charge.

Greg Meffert, a former technology official and deputy mayor under Nagin, pleaded guilty in 2010 to taking bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering city contracts to businessman Mark St. Pierre. In 2011, St. Pierre was convicted of charges that include conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. Nagin’s indictment accuses him of accepting bribes from St. Pierre.

After an online posting scandal involving several top-level federal prosecutors in former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s administration, Nagin’s attorneys attempted unsuccessfully to convince the federal court to toss out the indictments.

A former city contractor testified Thursday that he and his partners paid $60,000 in bribes sought by Nagin and Nagin’s sons and, in return, began getting work from the city that eventually totaled more than $2.6 million.

Rodney Williams was the first witness called Thursday in the federal corruption trial of Nagin, who served as mayor from 2002-2010. He said he was first approached by Nagin’s two sons, and later by Nagin himself, about paying the money to help support the Nagin’s family-owned granite company.

“The mayor told me he was tapped out and didn’t have any additional money to put into the company and he appreciated me putting up the money that his sons had requested,” said Williams, who earlier said he had made campaign contributions and taken Nagin on a fishing trip in hopes of winning city business, with no results.

Williams, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to a conspiracy charge. He is awaiting sentencing and said on the stand that he faces up to 37 months in prison. He was expected to face cross-examination from defense lawyers on Friday.

Williams’ testimony followed opening statements in which prosecutors said corruption flourished under Nagin. They alleged that the former mayor received money, free vacation travel and free granite for his family business- bribes worth more than $500,000 – for helping contractors receive millions of dollars’ worth of city work.

“Corruption was alive and well in this building,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman told jurors Thursday afternoon as a picture of New Orleans City Hall flashed on a screen behind him.

Defense lawyer Robert Jenkins countered that the work in question was awarded by public bid or through contracts in which committees played a role in selection. He promised email evidence to prove Nagin’s innocence. And he said the federal case is built on the testimony of witnesses who are not credible because of their own criminal activity and the deals they made with the federal government.

“They all have baggage. All of them,” Jenkins told The Associated Press, attacking the credibility of possible witnesses including businessman Frank Fradella, Nagin’s former technology chief, Greg Meffert, and Meffert’s, wife, Linda.

Opening statements were presented after U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan swore in 12 jurors Thursday.

The indictment claims Nagin received free private jet and limousine services to New York from an unidentified businessman who owned a New Orleans movie theater, identified in court Thursday as George Solomon Jr.

Nagin agreed to waive tax penalties the businessman owed to the city on a delinquent tax bill in 2006, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors also said Nagin accepted monthly payoffs from Fradella totaling $112,250 after he left office.

WWL-TV reported Friday that Jenkins got Williams to admit on the witness stand that he lied to the FBI twice before finally saying that he bribed Nagin.

“It’s your word against his (Nagin’s),” said Jenkins. “You admitted you lied to the FBI to serve your interests.”

When Jenkins questioned Williams about the process for awarding contracts, Williams held strong to his belief that the former mayor was the trigger man in any deal, WWL-TV reported.

Jenkins: Is it your understanding that the selection review committee decided which companies got work with the city?”

Williams: No sir. They recommended to the mayor the companies that qualified for the work and the mayor used his discretion to award the contract.”

Jenkins sought to categorize Williams’ dealings with Nagin as legitimate business deals and money that he gave to the Nagin family as “loans.” At the end of his questioning, Jenkins pointed out that $10,000 Williams gave to Jeremy Nagin was a loan, at which point the prosecutor, Matt Coman, re-directed. “Did you ever get that money back?” Williams was asked. His reply, “No.”

This article originally published in the February 3, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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