The corruption trial of former Mayor Ray Nagin is set to continue Thursday at noon after delays caused by wintery weather this week.
NEW ORLEANS – Three alleged kickback schemes financed by three crooked businessmen form the backbone of the federal corruption case against former Mayor Ray Nagin, and as expected, those city contractors were listed among the 33 possible witnesses that the government could call at Nagin’s bribery trial, which resumes Thursday after a two-day break for severe weather.
But those primary witnesses — Frank Fradella, Mark St. Pierre and Rodney Williams — are all tainted by their felony records. Each has been convicted of giving the former mayor money and gifts in exchange for city work, and in the case of Fradella and St. Pierre, their transgressions go well beyond that.
So the case could well turn on the testimony of 30 other prosecution witnesses named this week, a group that includes employees and co-workers of the trio, as well as intermediaries alleged to have played a role in the horse-trading. These bit players may provide crucial nuggets of evidence that bolster the credibility of the lead witnesses’ testimony.
Take, for instance, Charlie Crawford, who worked under Fradella at Home Solutions of America. Fradella has pleaded guilty to paying $162,500 in bribes to Nagin and giving him two truckloads of free granite — worth as much as $200,000 — in exchange for getting favorable treatment on city contracts.
It was Crawford who signed a shipping receipt and oversaw the transport of the second delivery of granite from a Home Solutions subsidiary in Tampa, Fla., to the Nagin family’s countertop business, Stone Age. Crawford, who is not charged, may be seen as a more credible witness than Fradella, who pleaded guilty to the bribes after being accused of massive securities fraud.
Crawford wanted to build a racetrack at the old Six Flags site in New Orleans East and Fradella wanted to give Nagin a job there after he left City Hall, but the project fell apart.
Crawford’s partner in the failed racetrack project was also involved in a second project that did end up providing Nagin with a post-mayoral income: the redevelopment of the old Market Street power plant sold by Entergy.
The original developer of that project, which also never got off the ground, was Fradella’s partner Michael Samuel of Miami. His company funneled $12,500 a month to Nagin after he left office, for “green energy consulting” — money that the indictment traces to Fradella.
Along with the three main schemes, the indictment charging Nagin outlines two more allegedly dirty deals that are slightly murkier and perhaps less central to the government’s case.
In the first, the former mayor is accused of accepting an expensive family trip to New York City in exchange for forgiveness on an overdue debt owed by the owners of a defunct cinema in New Orleans East. In the second, Nagin is accused of helping crush a community benefits agreement that neighbors of a planned Home Depot store in Central City wanted the retailer to sign.
In exchange, prosecutors allege, Home Depot awarded Stone Age an exclusive granite installation contract for four area stores.
The witness list suggests that Nagin’s dealings with Home Depot will receive significant attention at trial, while the alleged quid pro quo involving the Grand of the East movie theater may be treated more glancingly.
The prosecution’s witness list includes at least four former or current Home Depot officials, as well as two former Nagin aides, who will likely be quizzed on the stand about how Stone Age managed to land its contract.
One of them, Sarah Price, who was Home Depot’s project manager on the planned Central City store, emailed a City Hall aide in January 2007 to alert her about a call Nagin made that day to Home Depot CEO Frank Blake. Nagin told Blake that “he would help us with the community groups causing us problems,” Price wrote, and then went on to question Nagin’s motivation.
Two days after that phone call, Nagin’s calendar showed a meeting with unnamed Home Depot officials at Stone Age offices.
It’s not clear who was at that meeting. But among the other witnesses the prosecution intends to call are Cane Womack, a former regional manager for Home Depot; Larry Laseter, a former Home Depot vice president who left the retailer to work for Fradella in 2007; and Kent Knutson, a powerful lobbyist for Home Depot who also serves on the retailer’s board of directors.
The government also listed as possible witnesses Donna Addkison, who lasted just over a year as Nagin’s top economic development aide before leaving in August 2007; and Don Hutchinson, who preceded Addkison in the role. Addkison helped communicate Nagin’s disdain for the proposed agreement between the retailer and the neighborhood to the City Council.
The government did not list as witnesses any of the principals in the 12-screen movie theater at the Lake Forest Plaza mall in New Orleans East.
That could suggest that the scheme will receive less attention than the others at trial. It almost certainly indicates that George Solomon Jr., the partner in the movie-theater deal who prosecutors say paid Nagin off, has not conceded that his underwriting of a Nagin family vacation was a bribe.
The government may, however, call others who could help illuminate aspects of the cinema deal. Among them are Derrick Muse, deputy finance director for the city, and former city risk manager Paul Ramoni, both of whom could testify about the $34,000 in delinquent tax penalties Nagin forgave for the defunct Grand of the East movie theater.
Sources with knowledge of the case say the forgiveness of that debt allowed the theater’s owners to finally collect insurance proceeds from Hurricane Katrina. Shortly thereafter, the feds allege, Solomon bankrolled the New York vacation for the Nagins.
While the government apparently doesn’t plan to call Solomon or his two primary partners, bankers Ashton Ryan and Alden McDonald, Nagin’s defense team just might.
Ryan and McDonald were among 15 possible witnesses for the mayor whose names were read out in court Monday.
The group also included a handful of Nagin’s top aides from his time at City Hall, among them chief administrative officer Brenda Hatfield, city attorney Penya Moses-Fields, intergovernmental affairs director Kenya Smith and public works director Robert Mendoza.
Former Entergy officials Rod West and Dan Packer are also on Nagin’s witness list, likely because the Market Street power plant redevelopment may be at issue. Nagin’s public calendar showed at least one meeting with Fradella and West regarding that project.
Nagin’s defense team could also call a key witness connected to Fradella: Bill Edwards, who sold his company, Associated Contractors, to Fradella in 2006. It was that firm that won the city contracts for French Quarter sidewalks and French Market stalls in public bids.
Edwards was in court on Monday, likely prepared to testify that he won those contracts fair and square, without any quid pro quo deal with Nagin.
“The defense is going to say those were public bid contracts, those were put out to bid,” lawyer Chick Foret said. “Ray Nagin had nothing to do with that.”
The indictment is somewhat vague on what Fradella received from Nagin for the alleged bribes.
The case is set to resume with jury selection at noon Thursday. Opening arguments could begin later in the day.