UPDATE: The jury in the case of former Mayor Ray Nagin has ceased deliberations for the day and will return Tuesday morning at 9 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS — Prosecutor Rick Pickens began by showing the 12-person jury a picture of City Hall, using a low, unemotional tone.
And then, for nearly 55 minutes, he brought together the previous eight days’ worth of testimony in the federal corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin began, telling jurors, “You saw how a mayor on the take operates.”
Pickens, the assistant U.S. Attorney charged with wrapping Nagin’s alleged transgressions together, moved quickly Monday morning, going over the 10 alleged payoff schemes and each of the 21 counts, including conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns, the former mayor faces.
“Every time a contractor needed something critical from Ray Nagin, he seized the moment to get something in return,” Pickens told the jury, made up of six men and six women.
Pickens used charts to tie together payoffs, adding in emails and pictures as visuals to bolster his argument.
His closing was buoyed by that of fellow prosecutor Matt Coman, who came back after the defense's closing statement with a more emotional rebuttal. Coman told the jury that Nagin wanted them to believe that everyone else lied about him, even witnesses who had no legal exposure and no motivation to see Nagin go down. Nagin spent much of his time on the stand blaming others -- his sons, his secretary, his city attorney, his CPA, his ethics lawyer -- for making the real decisions, even though he was the final signator on the contracts and other paperwork in question.
"He'd have you believe he literally blindfolded himself and signed pages he didn't know what they were," Coman said, putting one hand over his eyes and the other sweeping across the air as if scribbling a signature.
In another emotional moment, Coman pointed out that Nagin, during his testimony, blamed Katrina for so many things that he had to correct himself after using the storm as an excuse for something that happened months before the storm.
Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, countered with his own emotional appeals to the jury, offering snide comments about the media and alleging the the prosecutors were "disingenuous" in the way they presented the evidence. He also repeated a key theme from his defense: that the government's top witnesses all had an ulterior motive to side with the government.
“Why would they come in and not tell the truth? Because (the government) control their destiny,” Jenkins said, an attempt to raise doubt in the mind of the jury.
Probably Jenkins' strongest argument was to point out that Frank Fradella's private business deals, such as a riverfront development at the old Market Street Power Plant or a NASCAR race track at the old Six Flags, never panned out. The government says those were examples of "favorable treatment" Nagin gave Fradella while Fradella was paying Nagin's family countertop business $50,000 and sending two shipments of free granite.
Yet, Pickens told jurors that a scheme to defraud doesn’t rely on the success of the scheme.
“It doesn’t matter if he was required to sign the contract,” Pickens said. “If you’re on the take at the time, you’re guilty of fraud.”
Pickens enumerated to the jury what Nagin received:
- Cell phone for family
- Jamaica Air Travel from Mark St. Pierre
- Campaign Contributions from Mark St. Pierre
- Private Jet Travel to NYC from George Solomon
- Private Jet Travel to Chicago from Frank Fradella
- Contracts from Home Depot
- $72,250 in payoffs from Rodney Williams
- Free Granite from Frank Fradella
- $50,000 in payoffs from Frank Fradella
- $112,500 in bogus consultant fees after he left office.
Pickens began his closing with the same issue that kicked off the government's case more than a week ago: the bribery charges that involved Rodney Williams, an owner of Three Fold Consultants.
Pickens showed jurors documents with Nagin’s signature circled, telling them that the same day as a $1 million contract was signed by Williams, a $10,000 payoff arrived.
Jenkins’ argument against Williams was based on what he said were contradictions between his testimony and that of Bassam Mekari, one of his two partners in Three Folds Consultants.
Besides, Jenkins argued, “If I am going to take a bribe, I am going to take it in cash.”
Jenkins then told the jury that the government was trying to “mislead” the jury, showing that the contract selection committee scored Three Fold “not recommended.” Jenkins said that was a different contract approval list that had nothing to do with the one Three Fold was approved for.
In a separate alleged scheme, Fradella testified that Nagin wanted $100,000 from him but that his partner, mortgage fraudster Michael McGrath, could only give Nagin's company Stone Age $50,000 hidden in his daughter’s trust. The government claims the granite deliveries were to make up the other $50,000.
Jenkins, however, questioned Fradella’s credibility, telling jurors that he walked out of the court room smiling after testifying.
He explained that he believed that the government combining Fradella’s Texas case with his case in Louisiana “helps him tremendously,” an attempt to strike at his credibility.
Still, Pickens had more.
For the first time, Pickens alleged that Nagin’s consulting job after he left office was a no-work deal.
“What did Nagin do for $112,500 in consultant fees? Nothing,” Pickens said. “That’s how we know it was a payoff.”
He wondered, “If it’s as sinister as they’re alleging, am I going to go to a lawyer and put in writing?”
Pickens wrapped up his nearly hour-long closing argument, wondering aloud to the jury why Nagin would claim 60 percent ownership in Stone Age, his sons’ consulting firm.
He answered his own question, telling the jury it was so Nagin could claim a bigger loss on income.
He wrapped up his argument by reminding jurors that the government must prove their case without a reasonable doubt.
“We did just that,” Pickens said “… all the evidence proves Ray Nagin is guilty. This is not a complicated case. A common sense view of the law can only support one verdict, guilty as charged.”
Jenkins relied heavily on emails, showing several in which Nagin wrote that he was uncomfortable doing business with contractors because of his position.
Nagin’s attorney used his time to plant the seed that the prosecution’s version of the facts is misleading.
“The government even used the Times-Picayune to help prove its case,” Jenkins said. “They can’t even deliver a paper seven days (a week).”
This was one of several parts of Jenkins' closing that was, itself, misleading. The articles in The Times-Picayune the prosecution used came in 2007 and 2008, when the paper was delivering seven days a week. Jenkins even finished his jab by saying, "Sorry, Gordon" to Gordon Russell, the reporter who wrote the articles, even though Russell has long since left The Times-Picayune to run investigations at The New Orleans Advocate.
More significantly, Jenkins said the government was misleading jurors by claiming Nagin's credit card use was part of the honest services wire fraud charges against the mayor. In fact, the personal credit card expenses Nagin charged to citizens are only part of the tax counts, and only the portion related to his family-members travel.
Jenkins said that the money that went to Nagin’s family-owned business, Stone Age Granite, was an investment in the business, not a bribe. He also told the jury that Nagin didn’t accept payoff in exchange for city contracts because he had little to do with awarding contracts.
“There is nothing the mayor can do to influence a public bid,” Jenkins said. “Signing the contract doesn’t mean he was giving out the contract.”
As Nagin arrived at the federal courthouse, Jenkins said little because of a gag order, offering only that he was glad the trial was winding to a close.
According to an analysis by our partners at the New Orleans Advocate, the jury is made up of four members from St. Tammany Parish, two members from Jefferson, Orleans and Terrebonne Parishes and one each from Tangipahoa and St. John the Baptist Parishes.
The jury also has one black, two Asian-Americans and nine white members.