Stephanie Grace: Nagin’s ‘good deeds’ pitch comes with risk

You could argue U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan dealt Ray Nagin’s defense a blow when she rejected his request to present evidence at his upcoming bribery trial that at times, he performed his job well and honestly.

Or maybe Berrigan actually did the former New Orleans mayor a favor. If you had Nagin’s record, would you really want your fate to hinge on how you conducted yourself on the job?

It’s bad enough the trial will focus on allegations Nagin sold out the city in exchange for kickbacks from multiple crooked contractors.

It would potentially be worse should all the rest of it — from his questionable day-to-day management decisions to the lack of progress after Hurricane Katrina to the general air of distraction that circulated through City Hall during Nagin’s later years — take center stage.

Among other things, the government already says it can prove Nagin not only tried to steer millions in city work to contractor-turned-government witness Frank Fradella, but also helped Fradella prop up his business by meeting with the company’s investors and pledging support. In exchange, he allegedly got $50,000 and “numerous truckloads” of free granite for his family countertop business.

Prosecutors say Nagin also gave no-bid design and engineering work — the sort of “professional services” contracts over which mayors have broad discretion — to Rodney Williams, who has pleaded guilty and will testify that he paid Nagin $72,500.

They note that he signed an executive order excluding technology contracts from bidding rules, allowing now-convicted subcontractor Mark St. Pierre to collect $7 million from the city, largely outside of public view. St. Pierre, who has already been convicted of supporting former top Nagin aide Greg Meffert’s lavish lifestyle, allegedly rewarded Nagin with trips to Hawaii and Jamaica, cellphone service for his family and a Chicago campaign fundraiser. Both St. Pierre and Meffert, who has pleaded guilty, are expected to testify against Nagin as well.

The indictment accuses Nagin of forfeiting taxes and delinquent charges from the owner of an eastern New Orleans movie theater who routed $23,500 through a third party to finance a Nagin family trip to New York, complete with private jet and limo. The owner, referred to in the indictment as “Businessman A,” is clearly George Solomon.

And it says that Nagin torpedoed a community benefits agreement that would have required the Central City Home Depot to hire neighborhood residents at above-market pay. Stone Age, the countertop business he and his wife Seletha set up with their two sons, got an exclusive installation deal with four of the chain’s other area stores. Of all the schemes outlined in the indictment, this one’s perhaps the most damning answer to Nagin’s claim that, as his attorney Robert Jenkins put it in legal filings, he tried to “help constituents, regardless of their wealth, stature in the community, or position in life.”

It would take an awful lot of supposedly “good deeds” to absolve the one-time reformer of all that.

In court papers, prosecutors deemed any such worthy acts irrelevant anyway. The trial, they argued, is solely about what Nagin supposedly did wrong, not what he may have done right. Jenkins responded that the prosecutors are trying to present a “one-sided version” of his client’s time in office.

“The defendant’s perennial law abiding conduct is at the very heart of the government’s charges,” Jenkins wrote. “It is essential for the jury to understand how the defendant acted in his daily official activities.”

Berrigan actually did leave the door open for Nagin to present that side of things. If Jenkins can convince the judge that certain particular character traits are “an essential element of a charge, claim or defense,” he may still be able to call character witnesses or discuss specific actions outside the indictment’s scope.

Here’s the risk: If Nagin is allowed to contend in court that he put his constituents’ needs first, prosecutors can offer still more examples of how he didn’t.

For a mayor who started off with so much support and promise but wound up leaving his city disappointed and demoralized, that’s a pretty dangerous path to choose.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.