NEW ORLEANS -- During a five-hour grilling in a New Orleans courtroom last week, former Mayor Ray Nagin said he didn’t remember making a phone call to River Birch landfill owner Jim Ward to ask for campaign cash in the feverish final weeks of his 2006 re-election effort.
Nagin also claimed to have hazy memories of other key events during that chaotic time. For instance, he said he never realized that a landfill he allowed to open in New Orleans East after Hurricane Katrina would be allowed to accept debris from demolished homes – when that was its express purpose.
More surprisingly, perhaps, Nagin forgot a date that is permanently imprinted in the minds of most New Orleanians: Aug. 29, the date Katrina made landfall locally. In Nagin’s recollection, the storm came four days earlier.
Nagin’s surprise appearance in New Orleans came two and a half years into a 10-year stretch in federal prison in Texarkana, Texas. Shackled at the ankles and dressed in street clothes, the mayor was deposed by lawyers from both sides as part of a contentious civil racketeering lawsuit. The plaintiff, trash giant Waste Management, alleges the owners of rival landfill River Birch bribed Nagin and others so that they could corner the lucrative debris-disposal market after Katrina, with an estimated $175 million in tipping fees in play.
It’s not clear whether Nagin’s testimony helped either side.
Shortly after Nagin made the call to Ward, the mayor received $20,000 in checks from companies tied to Ward and his stepson and business partner, Fred Heebe. A few days later, on May 20, 2006, he was re-elected to a second term.
Less than two months after that, Nagin made a decision that was likely worth millions of dollars to Ward and Heebe. In a startling reversal, he announced he was shutting down the Waste Management-run Chef Menteur landfill in New Orleans East, one of River Birch’s two main competitors.
Until that point, Nagin had been a staunch defender of the dump, which needed an emergency waiver for him to open in the first place.
That curious sequence of events appears to be the centerpiece of Waste Management’s case, which tracks the allegations of a federal criminal probe that explored similar allegations against Heebe and Ward before imploding due to prosecutorial misconduct. The suit, which was dormant during that probe, has been revived in an era that also saw Nagin shipped off to prison for taking bribes, albeit not from Ward and Heebe.
Waste Management’s lawsuit offers a coherent explanation for Nagin’s actions, which were puzzling at the time. But other facts don’t fit as neatly into the timeline, including some discussed at the deposition.
For instance, a month and a half after he took the River Birch contributions, Nagin issued a news release that pronounced the Chef Menteur landfill safe. He had commissioned tests of the waste stream after community residents and environmentalists expressed concerns.
And, Nagin’s decision to eventually shut down the Chef Menteur landfill came just days after his campaign received a letter from Ward in which Ward explained why he was declining to write yet another check.
In the letter, dated July 10, 2006, Ward boasted of already having provided Nagin $60,000 in donations “through various corporations” over the last two years.
“We make these contributions on a direct basis with Mayor Nagin,” Ward wrote, according to excerpts read by Waste Management attorney James Kress. “We have been major contributors to Mayor Nagin contributing through various corporations … $20,000 this year and $40,000 last year.”
Nagin testified that he didn’t remember knowing Ward or ever calling him. Nor did he recall the letter from Ward.
He also said he was “quite surprised at the numbers,” according to the transcript of his testimony.
Nagin’s memory of other aspects of the landfill controversy were also hazy. For instance, he said he never knew that debris from demolished houses would be dumped at Chef Menteur, when that was the clear premise of the “construction and demolition” landfill from the start. He repeatedly maintained that if he had known that anything but vegetation was to be taken there, he would have never allowed it to open.
When confronted with a document from his city attorney, Penya Moses-Fields, which stated that the Nagin administration agreed that the Chef Menteur landfill was necessary for construction waste, including for toxic asbestos, Nagin repeated a common defense from his 2014 criminal trial: that his staff made those decisions, not him.
“I had people that were empowered to do their jobs,” Nagin said. “I didn’t have to see every document.”
Apart from a few new details about his interactions with Ward, the testimony contains few new insights into the case.
Nagin steadfastly denied taking bribes, just as he did at his own trial, the transcript shows. He stubbornly declined to discuss his own criminal case, and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, repeatedly objected to questions from Kress about the basis of his conviction.
“I’m not answering anything related to my case,” Nagin told Kress at one point.
He also said he did not know Henry Mouton, a former state Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner who pleaded guilty to taking bribes from Heebe in exchange for badmouthing River Birch’s rivals.
When Kress explained what Mouton did, Nagin asked: “He did a plea deal with the feds?”
“Yep,” the lawyer responded.
“Well, I don’t trust any of that,” Nagin fired back.
Later, when Kress asked whether Nagin denies the acts outlined in the judgment against him, Nagin was ready with an answer.
“I maintain my innocence,” he said.