NEW ORLEANS – A federal jury convicted former Mayor Ray Nagin on 20 of 21 public corruption counts Wednesday after deliberating for more than six hours over two days.
Nagin will now serve home confinement in Frisco, Texas, until his sentencing by U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan on June 11.
Nagin did not have a noticeable reaction in the courtroom when the verdict was being read, but the weight of this historic verdict -- the first federal corruption conviction of a New Orleans mayor -- his wife Seletha sobbed and stayed hunched over in the courtroom, consoled by family members for more than a half an hour after court was adjourned.
On his way out of the courthouse, Nagin avoided questions thrown his way, answering only that, "I maintain my innocence." Nagin's attorney Robert Jenkins, meanwhile, indicated he planned an appeal, but he didn't talk about what the grounds for an appeal would be.
The former New Orleans mayor, who served two terms -- including during and after Hurricane Katrina -- was convicted on all the counts except for count seven, which related to bribery concerning funds from Rodney Williams and Three Fold Consultants.
That particular payment was a $10,000 check made out to cash in July 2009 by Williams' partner Bassam Mekari and delivered in a parking lot to Nagin's sons Jeremy and Jarin.
Nagin's defense attorney Robert Jenkins spoke with us on Angela Hill's WWL Radio show after the verdict. He said, "Obviously the jury looked at the fact that there was no connection between Rodney and that $10,000 and found him not guilty."
Our partners at The New Orleans Advocate interviewed two jury members, including David Smith, 53 of Terrebonne Parish, who said he convinced the rest of the jury to acquit Nagin on that one count.
"The money went to the sons," Smith said. "Really it was me that said, 'Hey, you show me the smoking gun, you show me where Ray Nagin benefitted from this and I'll go guilty.' Nobody could."
But Smith and another juror, Jennifer Connolly, 32 of New Orleans, told The Advocate that the jury simply didn't buy Nagin's explanations for the rest of the charges. In fact, Connolly suggested Nagin really hurt himself by taking the stand, responding evasively to prosecutor Matt Coman's questions, and blaming obvious missteps on everyone else.
"I felt like he did not take responsibility for anything and wouldn't even acknowledge his own signature directly," Connolly said. "I wanted to believe him to the end. But it just wasn't possible."
In stark contrast to previous public corruption cases, prosecutors declined comment after, choosing to keep reporters and news cameras at distance. They were prohibited from speaking by their new boss, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, who issued a short statement after the verdict.
"Our public servants pledge to provide honest services to the people of Southeast Louisiana," Polite said in the statement. "We are committed to bringing any politician who violates that obligation to justice."
The prosecution team was stoic as they left the courtroom following the verdict, wheeling out a cartful of documents with nary a smile. About two hours later, about a dozen of them, including prosecutors Matt Coman, Rick Pickens and Matthew Chester, lead FBI agent George Bokelberg and financial analyst Josephine Beninati, left their offices on Poydras Street and headed toward the river.
Nagin faces considerable jail time, including up to 20 years on some counts, although most legal analysts believe Berrigan will impose concurrent sentences that will total somewhere between 12 and 20 years.
Analysts commented on the enormity of such a verdict against a recent mayor, particularly this one, who came into office promising to end the whispers of corruption surrounding his predecessors, allegations of the very type of behavior he ended up convicted on.
"It's Shakespearean in its proportions," political analyst Clancy DuBos said. "This is the guy who came in as the big corruption fighter. He actually invited the feds over to city hall to investigate the previous administration."
Jenkins said afterward that he was surprised by the verdict and that Nagin would appeal. Jenkins suggested it would be best if someone else handled the appeal, acknowledging Nagin's financial troubles and noting that a public defender may have to take up the case at the appellate level.
Still, the overwhelmingly guilty verdict was hardly unexpected.
More surprising was the fact that Nagin even tested the government’s case, built over five years of media reports, FBI investigations and convictions of five co-conspirators.
The verdict marks the first conviction of a New Orleans mayor and caps a seven-year fall from grace for Nagin, who emerged from Hurricane Katrina as a national figure but became ever more reviled in his own city.
Things began to unravel publicly for the mayor in 2007 when Gordon Russell, then at The Times-Picayune, started to uncover corruption inside Nagin’s technology office, his granite business’ arrangement with The Home Depot and his free flight to Chicago.
Then WWL-TV raised questions about a house-gutting program and reporter Lee Zurik demanded copies of Nagin’s calendar. Both Russell and Zurik figured prominently in the trial, with prosecutors focusing on Nagin’s defensive reactions to their reporting.
During Nagin’s final year and a half in office, I exposed his trips to Hawaii, Jamaica and Chicago paid by contractor Mark St. Pierre, along with some of the personal charges on his city credit card.
Nagin’s reaction to those reports mirrored his response to prosecutors on the witness stand: “I don’t get this.”
And after Nagin left office, a string of former employees and contractors went to federal court to plead guilty to their role in paying or facilitating bribes. It started with Greg Meffert, the former tech chief and self-proclaimed deputy mayor who admitted taking bribes from St. Pierre and using some of the money to send Nagin on family vacations.
Then St. Pierre was convicted on 53 counts and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. The man Nagin tapped to run the tech office after Meffert left, Anthony Jones, also pled guilty to taking St. Pierre’s bribes. Fradella pled guilty to bribing Nagin, Fradella’s former partner Aaron Bennett pled in a separate case and agreed to testify against the mayor and, finally, Williams emerged in late 2012 as the linchpin.
Although a few of the acts in the conspiracy count stemmed from before the storm, the vast majority of the charges were for deals Nagin got involved with in 2007 and 2008. For example, he didn’t even meet Frank Fradella until a January 2007 trip to Chicago to see the Saints play the Bears in the NFC Championship.
Rodney Williams’ relationship with the mayor dated back to a 2002 fishing trip, but Williams’ initial efforts to curry favor with Nagin didn’t work. Prosecutors said it wasn’t until Nagin really needed Williams’ cash to keep his countertop business afloat that he began to reward Williams and his partners with contracts.