NEW ORLEANS — Nearly eight grueling hours after first getting called to the stand in a fifth-floor courtroom in the Hale Boggs Federal Building, Ray Nagin was told he could return to his seat.
To which he responded, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Now, all that’s left are the closing arguments, set for 9 a.m. Monday, in the first-ever public corruption trial of a current or former New Orleans mayor.
His religious response followed what appeared to be the peak of his trial, when Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman wrapped up his cross-examination by showing Nagin a chart, detailing nearly $350,000 in unreported income between 2005 and 2008.
Nagin raised his voice more than he had at any other point and said, “The most outrageous chart prepared!”
Coman followed by asking, “Do you ever intend on taking responsibility for your actions?”
“I always take responsibility,” Nagin said.
“Mr. Nagin, you sold your office, didn’t you?” Coman asked.
“No, I didn’t, “ Nagin said.
Then redirect by Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, was quick, taking less than 10 minutes.
It was in stark contrast to the tempo and questioning by Coman, the lead prosecutor
‘I’m telling you the truth’
Throughout his testimony, Nagin said all of the decisions regarding allegedly dirty contracts were in other people’s hands – his staff’s, his sons', his ethics lawyer's – and when those who already had testified contradicted him, Nagin said they all were lying.
“Have you ever lied?” Coman asked.
"Nobody's perfect," Nagin answered.
"In this case?" Coman specified.
“No. I’m telling you the truth,” Nagin said.
It was the focal-point of the trial's eighth day, the second in which the former mayor faced questions from Coman on cross-examination.
Shortly before lunch, Coman introduced an email in which Home Depot representatives said they had spoken to Nagin in regard to an account with his sons’ business, Stone Age.
The former mayor admitted talking to Hope Depot’s Cane Womack about how his sons could get a deal with the company.
“It was just to see if it was a possibility,” Nagin said while repeatedly saying his sons, Jeremy and Jarin, now 29 and 26 respectively, were really running the granite countertop company.
And when asked about his claim that he was just a passive investor in Stone Age, Nagin said his only conversation with Home Depot about Stone Age was simply about finding out how Stone Age could apply for work installing countertops at some Home Depot stores.
“I was seeking what the process is for my sons to apply. … How is that not (being a passive investor)?” Nagin said.
The problem is, all of this with Stone Age seeking business from Home Depot happened in early 2007, while Home Depot was building a major new store in Central City.
Nagin said he signed over streets to Home Depot – the company was hoping to build on land where city streets already were situated – for a low price of $100,000, rather than the $850,000 appraised value, because the City Council forced him to with a 7-0 vote.
Coman asked him if he had the power to veto it if he was against it. Nagin said "7-0 vote is veto-proof." Coman tried to point out that shouldn't stop a mayor from vetoing something he was against, but he was told to move on by Judge Ginger Berrigan.
When it was presented that Stone Age was “onboarded” with Home Depot as a provider the week after Nagin offered to help company with community groups who were trying to force the retailer into onerous concessions, the former mayor said, “That was not related.”
To counter Nagin's assertion that he was just passive with Stone Age, Coman showed emails where Nagin complains to Home Depot officials about a lack of work for his family company and about a "pattern of broken promises." Coman also showed an email from Nagin to Singer Kitchens owner Michael Singer haggling over prices for a partnership the mayor was pushing at the time, in January 2007.
In an interview in 2010, Singer said Nagin was pressuring him to do work with Stone Age and even emailed him in the middle of a big crime march at City Hall.
Nagin contended the Home Depot business wasn't even good for Stone Age.
“Home Depot was not a profitable account for Stone Age,” Nagin said.
Coman responded by saying the company made $170,000 in the first year from Home Depot.
Being New Orleans’ mayor
Soon after getting back from lunch, Coman began by questioning Nagin about his personal use of the city credit card.
Nagin told Coman and jurors that the flight to New York, paid for by movie theater owner George Solomon, came about because there were no commercial flights available. But Coman countered by showing that Nagin took a commercial flight to Las Vegas that same week.
The former mayor blamed his secretary Pat Smith for booking a personal vacation in April 2005 on the city credit card. Coman presented records showing that Nagin charged city taxpayers $3,400 to stay at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta.
In a letter from Nagin asking for reimbursement, the travel expenses are blacked out, something he said Smith did. He told jurors that Smith was overwhelmed after Katrina, dancing around the question from Coman about why he blacked out credits and got reimbursed for trips that were never taken.
“I didn’t black those out,” Nagin said. “Pat Smith did.”
Coman asked Nagin about charges for birthday parties and dinners and Nagin explained that some of them weren’t necessarily personal expenses.
He said at dinners and parties “people could come up and ask things,” justification, he noted, for charging the city credit card.
Regarding a wedding anniversary dinner, Nagin said, “I reimbursed the city for that.”
Coman responded, “Where is your proof?”
Nagin had, in fact, reimbursed the city for an anniversary dinner at Lillette after a story in the Times-Picayune.
‘Hard to sit and listen to this'
Instead of someone who benefitted financially from taking bribes for city contracts, as the prosecution alleges, Nagin said he actually suffered financially by being mayor in an exchange with Coman.
COMAN: “You never put your own financial interest before the financial interest of the city?”
NAGIN: “No sir. I took a 300 percent cut in salary when I took office. I went from having a seven figure net worth to not much.”
COMAN: “That’s why you took payoffs from contractors to supplement your income?”
NAGIN: “No sir. I had enough (money) to go the distance for eight years. My house was paid for. I had all that equity. I had a 401K. I was prepared to serve the people of New Orleans.”
And as the prosecution continued to present evidence that it claimed showed improper and illegal behavior, Nagin fired back.
“You keep saying I accepted $50,000,” Nagin said. “I did not accept $50,000. You’re trying to insinuate things."
He complained about how Coman would toss in references to the bribes or payoffs, payments Nagin contends were either investments or loans.
“It’s hard to sit here and listen to this,” Nagin said.
‘Don’t know what you’re talking about’
Friday began much like it ended Thursday, with the former mayor dancing around questions from Coman, including a point-blank query about a contract with former city contractor Rodney Williams, one of those who said they bribed the mayor.
“You didn’t keep your promise to Rodney Williams when you approved contract after contract (for him)?” Coman asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nagin responded.
“Didn’t you approve $2.6 million in contracts for Rodney Williams? You traded city dollars for Stone Age dollars, didn't you?” Coman followed.
“No sir,” Nagin answered.
Williams, who owned Three Folds Consultants, joined with his two partners to pay $60,000 to Stone Age, the granite company owned by Nagin’s sons. They later gave another $12,250 to the Nagin family company. Nagin, however, said he never received any of the checks.
Thursday, Nagin described himself as a “passive investor” in and "financier" of Stone Age, owning only 20 percent of the company. But documents tell a different story, including ones stating he owned 38 percent and 40 percent and IRS forms showing Nagin owned 60 percent of the company.
“That’s for tax purposes,” Nagin said of the 60-percent figure.
He admitted in testimony that he made sales calls on Stone Age’s behalf, but again said it was his sons who made the decisions for the company and dealt with city vendors Williams and Frank Fradella.
On several occasions, prosecutors described payments from city contracts as “bribes.”
To that, Nagin said, “I don’t know how you can make that leap.”
Prosecutors, meanwhile, continued to ask Nagin about taking payoff checks from city contractors Williams and Frank Fradella.
Nagin didn’t bite.
“I did not take any checks,” he said. “You keep trying to say that. I did not take any checks.”
Prosecutors answered by saying the checks went to Stone Age.
Nagin answered that by calling the company his sons’.
Redacted calendar questions
At another point in Friday's testimony, Nagin said he was not involved in sending WWL-TV a 2008 calendar that was full of blacked out dates. WWL-TV had made the public records request and received the calendar with many of the names redacted.
The government claims that Nagin doctored the calendar to hide private meetings with city contractors who bribed him. Nagin told the jury that members of his staff, including city attorney Penya Moses-Fields, handled the public records requests.
COMAN: “Did you tell anyone to black out (the calendar)?”
NAGIN: “No sir. It was handled at a different layer than me. I was told about a public records request and told them to go deal with it.”