NEW ORLEANS -- Ray Nagin, the Katrina Mayor, the businessman-turned-politician who vowed to clean up City Hall more than a decade ago, goes on trial Monday as the first modern mayor of New Orleans charged with public corruption.
Shocking the legal community, Nagin appears to have no interest in any kind of plea deal, maintaining his innocence and steeling himself to take on the U.S. government in Judge Ginger Berrigan’s courtroom, a year after prosecutors charged him with 21 counts of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and fraud.
The federal indictment lays out between $500,000 and $650,000 that Nagin allegedly collected in cash, trips, granite deliveries, yard work, cell phone bill payments and consulting work from businessmen who got city work or tax and loan breaks.
Heavyweight vs. flyweight
With a half dozen people lined up to testify against the former mayor, Nagin has an uphill battle, WWL Legal Analyst Chick Foret said.
“This is like a heavyweight against a flyweight,” Foret said. “When you look at the quality of the evidence, Mr. Nagin is in a very difficult position, in my opinion, in trying to defend himself against a mountain of evidence and the number of witnesses the government is going to call who are going to say, I anticipate, 'I had direct dealings with Ray Nagin, we had these conversations, we had these arrangements.'
That’s why it’s so surprising that Nagin has eschewed a plea bargain, rumored to have once been a single conspiracy charge with a maximum prison term of five years. By taking it to trial, he could be acquitted – or he could be convicted on all counts and get about 20 years in prison, with most legal experts, including Foret, estimating that Berrigan would use the sentencing guidelines to calculate something in the range of 10 years. (Click image to see a timeline of events leading to Ray Nagin's indictment)
Of course, the feds probably wouldn’t reject a plea deal if Nagin suddenly asked for one, even after jury selection begins Monday morning.
“He may want to look at the jury panel and say, ‘OK, I like what I see here, let's move forward,'” Foret said. “It may be he gets there and sees a number of St. Tammany Parish residents and doesn't like what he sees there and says, 'Oh, is the deal still on the table?'”
That would be a mistake, though, Foret said. Nagin should base his decision on the quantity and quality of the evidence against him, something he’s had plenty of time to review because of three trial delays, including the last one in October after the feds had already turned in their exhibits.
First rumblings of corruption
It may be the biggest corruption trial in New Orleans since former Gov. Edwin Edwards faced a jury at Camp and Poydras streets 13 years ago.
And that, along with Nagin’s national prominence from leading the city during Hurricane Katrina, makes this a big moment for New Orleanians who have been hearing all about Nagin’s legal troubles since shortly after the storm.
The first rumblings started eight years ago, shortly after Nagin was reelected to a second term, with postings on the blog American Zombie about a trip Nagin and his technology chief took to Hawaii, paid for by a technology vendor.
What followed created splashy headlines for the rest of Nagin’s time in City Hall and beyond. It started with the technology office, but the government’s case only got stronger when they found more specific payments Nagin collected from other businessmen, allegedly for city contracts.
Gordon Russell, now an editor at The New Orleans Advocate, started exposing most of the self-dealing in the technology office in 2006 and 2007. The office was run by Nagin’s neighbor and self-proclaimed “deputy mayor” Greg Meffert (pictured to the right), with the help of Meffert’s old friend from the private sector, Mark St. Pierre.
There was a yacht, the Silicon Bayou, owned by St. Pierre and three others and used for Nagin’s campaign parties and, later, for the tech office contract workers and Meffert to have parties with strippers. There were special contracting arrangements to get St. Pierre no-bid work on the city’s failed crime camera program. There was St. Pierre’s company NetMethods, which provided Meffert with a credit card and freebies.
I was the first to confront Nagin five years ago about the trip he and his wife and three kids took to Hawaii, paid for in part with Meffert’s NetMethods credit card. Nagin denied a vendor paid. Then he changed his story to say a vendor might have paid, but he thought Meffert had financed it. He said there was nothing wrong with him taking a luxury vacation from his employee.
It was a similar response when I exposed Nagin’s family trip to Jamaica, which had happened shortly after Katrina and was also paid for in part with the NetMethods card. This time Nagin’s secretary Pat Smith was actually given the card to buy the Nagin family first-class plane tickets. Nagin said it was “a blur.”
Guilty pleas and confessions
Meffert then pleaded guilty to taking bribes from St. Pierre and is ready to testify against Nagin. St. Pierre fought the feds and lost, badly. He was convicted on 53 counts of bribery and fraud and sentenced to 17 years in prison, but now he’s angling to testify against Nagin to try to reduce his sentence.
I also got a confession from businessman Aaron Bennett (pictured to the left), who was hired to make the no-bid payments to St. Pierre after he provided a private jet to fly Nagin, his wife, Meffert and others to the Saints-Bears NFC Championship Game in Chicago in January 2007 and on to Las Vegas.
There, Nagin met Frank Fradella, another businessman looking for contracts. He got many of them, for street work, sidewalks and French Market stalls, among others, but they all appeared to be awarded through public bids, making it difficult for Nagin to control directly. What Fradella alleges Nagin did was provide “favorable treatment” from the city with paying invoices and the like.
Fradella’s company, Home Solutions of America, had contracts with The Home Depot, and Fradella said he helped Nagin and his sons’ nascent granite countertop business get installation work with the home-improvement retailer.
Meanwhile, Nagin talked with The Home Depot’s CEO about the new store the company built off Claiborne Avenue downtown, allegedly promising to get community groups off the company’s back.
Fradella’s company also had access to granite in Tampa, Fla., and allegedly had $100,000-$200,000 worth of the raw material delivered to Nagin’s family company, Stone Age LLC. And Fradella had the chairman of Home Solutions’ board, Michael McGrath, send Nagin $50,000 for what the feds allege were bogus ownership shares in Stone Age.
And after Nagin left office in 2010, Fradella (pictured to the left) kept paying him. He paid him for consulting work, then had a partner in a failed riverfront development project named Michael Samuel pay Nagin for green energy consulting. In all, Nagin collected $112,500 in wire transfers, the basis for honest services wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges.
The indictment also alleges that Nagin got a $26,000 trip to New York City from a theater owner called “Businessman A,” who is known to be George Solomon Jr. of Southern Theatres. He allegedly paid for the trip to thank Nagin for forgiving tax and loan payments for Solomon’s theater at Lake Forest Plaza, the Grand of the East.
The tip of the iceberg?
But all of that appears to be just the appetizer for the feds’ star witness, Rodney Williams. The founder of Three Fold Consultants LLC is completely unconnected to Fradella, Meffert, St. Pierre or Bennett, and he was the last one to plead guilty to bribing Nagin, in December 2012.
He says he paid Nagin $60,000 in January 2008 in exchange for getting him the first of two dozen Hurricane Katrina recovery contracts worth more than $3 million. Over the next year and a half, Williams paid Nagin a total of $72,500, including $10,000 in cash to his sons for more allegedly bogus ownership shares in Stone Age, which was defunct by 2009 – but still sought payment for losses supposedly suffered in the 2010 BP oil spill.
Three Fold had served as a subcontractor to MWH Americas, the prime rebuilding contractor, but it scored poorly when it sought its own professional services work.
But Nagin had fought with the City Council to keep the contracting process under his control and behind closed doors. Two members of his administration, Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield and Public Works Director Robert Mendoza, served on the committee that reviewed that contract, and if Nagin is going to poke holes in Williams’ testimony, he may need some support from them.
“The government's going to say, 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, there was a quid pro quo. Mr. Nagin got something in return for a contract,'” said WWL Legal Analyst Chick Foret. “The defense on the other hand, through Robert Jenkins, and perhaps Ray Nagin himself if he testifies, is going to present witnesses who are going to try to distance Ray Nagin from the awarding of those contracts.”
Hatfield declined to say whether she had been called to testify and Mendoza, who went to work for Aaron Bennett after he left City Hall, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Called to testify
Two people confirmed to WWL-TV that they were subpoenaed to testify for Nagin, but both questioned why. Lawyer Daniel Davillier, who was the head of the black chamber of commerce, says he convinced Jenkins he had nothing to add.
The other, former MWH Vice President Julie Sardie, says she can’t get in touch with Jenkins to find out what he wants her to testify about. She says she didn’t have anything to do with the contracting process, although she was Nagin’s neighbor on Park Island in Bayou St. John, delivered all of the company’s many campaign donations to the mayor and could say she never saw Nagin do anything improper.
She’s required to come from Opelousas to New Orleans on Monday morning at 8:30, although she may have to wait a week or more for Jenkins to put on Nagin’s case.
Berrigan expects the trial to take two weeks or more. She plans to take two to three days just to pick the jury of 12, plus four alternates. They will be residents of the 13-parish area of the Eastern District of Louisiana, so it’s quite conceivable that many in the jury pool will not have much knowledge of Nagin’s case, in spite of its detailed coverage in the media.
There will be a pool of 75 prospective jurors each day, examined by the attorneys in groups of 18. The feds will get six challenges to strike people from the jury and Nagin’s side gets 10.