Most of Tuesday morning in the trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, prosecutors laid out an alleged scheme involving former Nagin shaking down the home improvement chain Home Depot for work.
Home Depot economic development specialist Sarah Price testified that Nagin called and emailed Home Depot several times to inquire about his family owned business, Stone Age Granite & Marble, getting contracts as a granite countertop installer with Home Depot.
Prosecutors presented a December 2006 email communication from a Home Depot official cautioning his economic development team in New Orleans saying, “You guys better be damn careful…didn’t we just get incentives from the city of New Orleans.”
Another Home Depot email said, “It is dangerous to use an elected official’s family business.”
Nagin later left voice mail messages for Home Depot officials, offering to help with community groups causing problems for the development of the new store.
Another Home Depot memo presented in court raised some red flags saying that the mayor’s calls, quote, “…were positioning himself for future jobs for his family business.”
The memo also stated that Home Depot’s CEO was aware of quote, “Nagin’s desire to be a vendor and install kitchen counter tops for us.”
Nagin eventually secured a granite installation contract with Home Depot in February 2007.
Home Depot government relations vice president Kent Knutson also testified, describing Nagin and the community groups as quote, “shake down artists.”
Knutson told the jury, “Everybody wanted something. Nagin wanted work for Stone Age, the community groups wanted higher wages and money for projects.”
Nagin's defense attorney Robert Jenkins cross examining Knutson tried suggesting New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head, whose district would receive the Home Depot, was the shakedown artist, not Nagin.
"Stacy Head was angry with us and wasn’t going to attend the groundbreaking," Knutson said.
But when asked during the redirect from federal prosecutor Matthew Coman, "What did Stacy Head want?"
Knutson replied, "Community benefits."
"What did Ray Nagin want?" Coman then asked.
"Contracts for Stone Age," Knutson.
Despite the apparent tough talk by Home Depot officials, Nagin eventually secured contracts for Stone Age to install granite for four Home Depot stores in the New Orleans area.
After Knutson, federal prosecutors called Donna Addkison, a top economic development aide to Nagin, to testify.
Addkison told the jury she dealt with the sale of city streets to Home Depot where the store would be built in Central City. The streets were worth approximately $850,000, but Home Deport only wanted to pay $100,000. According to her, Nagin nixed Home Depot's offer in 2006, but then changed his mind a year later when he was seeking the granite deal for Stone Age.
Jenkins, however, during a cross examination of Addkison tried to show Stacy Head was the person who wanted to sell streets for $100,000 to Home Depot instead of $850,000, and then pointed to the fact that the City Council agreed to the deal 7-0, while the mayor had no vote.
The prosecution followed Addkison's appearance on the witness stand with another person who had dealings in the Home Depot-Stone Age relationship, Cane Womack, a former regional manager for Home Depot. Womack said he was the Home Depot official who dealt with Nagin on Stone Age becoming a countertop installer for the company. But, according to Womack, there were problems with Stone Age from the beginning.
Nagin wanted 10-20 jobs per week for Stone Age, Womack testified, but he said when he went to the Stone Age shop he was unimpressed. The company was not up to snuff with other Home Depot countertop providers, he testified, coming away with the impression that Nagin's company was a "startup." Despite concerns about Stone Age, Womack said "If you tell the mayor no, (it) could cause some problems for you."
Womack testified that once Stone Age signed on as Home Depot provider "they underperformed." That didn't stop Nagin from seeking more business with Home Depot. Stone Age got two-three stores initially, Womack said, and even with them performing poorly Nagin demanded more stores.
According to Womack, Home Depot checked Stone Age's credit and found the company had a high risk of default. Nonetheless, Home Depot went ahead and gave Nagin two more stores. An email from Womack presented at the trial had him justifying giving Stone Age more work even with the problems. "Given the political nature of this relationship, I think it's better to move forward and expect performance," Womack had written.
As for the mayor's involvement with Stone Age, Womack testified that not only was Ray Nagin involved in discussions, he got a badge from Home Depot for installation work.
Womack killed the Stone Age deal a year later, April 22, 2008, an after article by repoter Gordon Russell appeared in the Times-Picayune. Later on redirect from Coman, Womack said that the public was in the dark about Nagin's relationship with Stone Age until the article came out.
Under cross examination, Jenkins asked Womack if Nagin had done anything improper. He replied that the mayor had not.
Patricia Stoddard, who oversaw granite installers under Cane Womack at Home Depot, took the witness stand next. She testified that she moved to New Orleans for Home Depot. After meeting her new boss Womack, He said to her, "Congratulations, you'll be working with the mayor." She said Womack and others chuckled that she would have to deal with Nagin as a countertop installer.
Like Womack, Stoddard testified that Stone Age's performance was poor. "When they started getting bigger jobs, that’s when they really began to fumble," she said on the witness stand. Other Home Depot providers had to go in and fix Stone Age's poor installation jobs, she testified.
In July 2007, Nagin sent Stoddard an email, saying "I am somewhat disappointed in the number of jobs ... and a pattern of broken promises." When Stoddard asked Nagin about the broken promises, she testified, "He deflected" and asked for more jobs.
One large question that remains unanswered is if Ray Nagin will take the stand in his defense. Jenkins was asked outside of the federal courthouse if he planned to call Nagin to the witness stand to offset the prosecution’s claims.
"The government is still putting on their case and interestingly enough, I think we’ll have another week before we have to make that decision," Jenkins said.