NEW ORLEANS – If former Mayor Ray Nagin wants to avoid a corruption trial scheduled to begin in 11 days, he is running out of time and options.
Nagin’s defense attorney Robert Jenkins returned to court Thursday for a final pre-trial conference with U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan and the federal prosecutors who charged Nagin with bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and fraud charges in January. And it seemed little progress was made, either in terms of striking some kind of plea deal or in relation to Jenkins’ recent motions to delay the trial or kill the indictment.
Jenkins emerged from the 45-minute, closed-door meeting proclaiming that he never said there were any plea negotiations happening.
Nagin was in plea negotiations with prosecutors before he was indicted in January, but has dug in for a fight ever since. If there was ever a moment he might have wavered, however, some thought it would have been last week, after Jenkins’ request for an internal Justice Department report on the U.S. Attorney's Office online commenting scandal was rejected – and after the former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick, was hit with a whopping 28 years behind bars in his own corruption case.
“It’s certainly one of the largest sentences I’ve ever seen for an elected official,” said WWL-TV Legal Analyst Jason Williams. “He was a mayor of a major city, just like Mayor Nagin was a mayor of a major city. I think if I was the mayor and facing charges, it would scare me a little bit. This is not like the sentence Aaron Broussard got. This is not like Bill Jefferson’s sentence. This is real time.”
Kilpatrick faced a similar number of felony charges, 24 as opposed to 21 for Nagin, but Kilpatrick’s included racketeering and extortion.
When we asked Jenkins why, if no plea deal is in the works, he has been spending much of the last several days filing motions to push Nagin’s trial back, he said he was simply being thorough.
“You always try to do what you can for your client so you always file a proper motion,” Jenkins said, surrounded by what’s sure to be just a fraction of the media horde that will descend on the courthouse if the Katrina mayor fights the charges at trial. “To answer that question, it’s not for the press and the public, it’s to do what’s in the best interest of your client.”
Jenkins reiterated his call for Berrigan to dismiss the charges against Nagin. He has argued in court filings that prosecutorial misconduct in former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office by disgraced former top prosecutors Sal Perricone and Jan Mann requires that all charges be dropped. Jenkins noted that U.S.
District Judge Kurt Engelhardt threw out the convictions of police officers charged with murder and a cover-up in the infamous Danziger Bridge shootings after Katrina.
But Rick Pickens, one of three prosecutors on the Nagin case, responded by saying that Perricone, Letten, Mann and her husband Jim Mann all left the office last year, before Nagin was even indicted. He said Engelhardt did not throw out the indictment of the police officers in the Danziger case and Berrigan shouldn’t do so either in the Nagin case.
Berrigan said she would consider Jenkins’ motions to delay the trial and dismiss the charges against Nagin without hearing any oral arguments. She’s already shown herself to be wary of the prosecutorial misconduct argument, rejecting an earlier Jenkins motion by saying that jury selection would ensure a fair trial for Nagin regardless of what Perricone previously wrote in online ramblings.
She also rebuffed Jenkins on his previous request for a continuance when she agreed to a three-week delay rather than the minimum 30 days Jenkins had asked for.
Our legal analyst, Williams, said it’s getting far too close to the trial date for further delays. Court filings indicate that Berrigan is laying out specifics for the trial, including rules for jury selection, media access and final evidence disclosure.
A lot of time and money is being spent on starting the trial Oct. 28, and Williams said the just-ended government shutdown makes it even less likely that Berrigan would let any of that go to waste.
“Federal judges in the Eastern District typically do not grant continuances of either side this close to a trial date because a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of effort has already been spent on trial prep,” Williams said. “Especially at a time when the entire city, the entire country is looking at how the federal government is spending money, I can’t imagine wasting money prepping for a trial that’s not going to go forward.”