NEW ORLEANS – Crooked contractor Aaron Bennett is supposed to be a government witness in the Ray Nagin trial, but he can’t seem to get out of his own way.
Bennett pleaded guilty to bribing Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle in October 2011 and has been out on bond since. He wasn’t allowed to gamble or enter a casino, but he was arrested this week on an indictment for passing bad checks at a Mississippi casino.
He appeared in an orange jumpsuit and shackles Friday before Magistrate Judge Joseph Wilkinson. And Wilkinson threw the book at him.
The government asked to release Bennett with an ankle monitor and Bennett’s own attorneys asked for him to get another chance. They offered his fourth wife, Martha Russell, as Bennett’s custodian.
But then Russell took the stand and admitted that she accompanied Bennett to Harrah’s Casino just last month for a show. She also acknowledged knowing about him going to the Mississippi casino in November 2011, not long after Bennett was convicted and prohibited from visiting casinos.
Wilkinson was having none of it, sending Bennett back to jail pending his sentencing, which is scheduled for November.
Wilkinson lambasted Bennett for trying to use his money and influence to flaunt the law, accusing him of lying to his probation officer just 27 days after he was set free and saying there was probable cause to believe he went even further and committed fraud in Mississippi, too.
“It's the arrogance. It's the sense of entitlement...it's Mr. Bennett's attitude,” Wilkinson said from the bench.
As he was led off by U.S. marshals, Bennett mouthed “I’m sorry” to his wife.
Bennett did get the indictment in Mississippi dropped. He acknowledged that he gambled and failed to pay for the two $5,000 markers he got from a Gulfport casino, but the charges were dropped Friday because Bennett’s attorney, David Courcelle, used money from Russell to pay $11,080 in debt and fees.
Bennett’s attorneys said they would appeal Wilkinson’s decision to revoke Bennett’s bond.
Meanwhile, Bennett’s status could have a bearing on his willingness to help the government in its case against Nagin.
My investigations of Bennett in 2010 and 2011 uncovered alleged violations of federal contracting rules with the Army Corps of Engineers, campaign finance improprieties and freebies like sports tickets, gambling chips and dinners he allegedly provided for Hingle.
Then in the summer of 2011, Hingle wore a wire on Bennett and caught him in the act, paying a 10-thousand dollar bribe.
While negotiating a plea deal in the Hingle case, Bennett sat with me for an interview and admitted providing a private jet for Nagin and his wife Seletha to fly to the Bears-Saints NFC Championship Game and on to Las Vegas in January 2007.
“On the trip to Chicago and Vegas and on the way back I was trying to find something that interested the Nagins. I wanted to give something of value to them because I wanted the mayor to give me a project, ‘Here, I want you to go and find a way to redevelop this.’ I wanted to be a player in that arena.”(The video above contains audio of Bennett's interview)
That’s when Bennett said he introduced Nagin to Frank Fradella, former CEO of Home Solutions of America and the star witness in the case against the former mayor. He admits giving Nagin $50,000 and truckloads of free granite for the Nagin family countertop installation business.
“I was just talking about how excited I was to be selling my company to Home Solutions, ‘What a great firm, they do all kinds of stuff,’ and when I just happened to mention the countertops, Home Depot, his wife, Seletha, was the one who piped up, ‘Oh, oh. The boys have a countertop installation business. I wonder what they get to get some business from that?’” Bennett said.
“That’s why you put them on the private jet, that’s why you wine and dine them.”