Stephanie Grace: Trial makes Nagin seem worse than we thought

Just a few days into former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s federal bribery trial, the evidence so far suggests this much: It’s as bad as we thought. Actually, it’s worse.

By “it,” I’m not talking so much about Nagin’s allegedly illegal activity; whether he crossed the legal line soon will be in the hands of the jury. I’m talking about the extent to which Nagin violated the trust voters placed in him, broke the rules and served himself rather than the public.

It’s been clear for a long time now that Nagin collected money, gifts and favors from people who did business with the city. But the prosecution’s case shows he didn’t just fall in with the wrong crowd of wheelers, dealers and scam artists, a cast of characters that includes now-convicted crooks Frank Fradella, Aaron Bennett, Mark St. Pierre and his own onetime technology aide, Greg Meffert. He didn’t just get seduced by easy access to private jets and luxury travel to exotic tropical locales from people who very much wanted something in return. He didn’t just slither down some slippery slope.

No, Nagin actively preyed on potential city contractors on behalf of his family’s granite countertop company, according to testimony from yet another businessman who entered a guilty plea and faces up to 37 months in prison, and his partner, who agreed to 18 months probation.

Rodney Williams is no saint, but he may be the most sympathetic figure involved in Nagin’s alleged wide-ranging conspiracy — or perhaps just the least unsympathetic — which made him a compelling kickoff witness for the prosecution.

Like many other engineering firms, Williams’ Three Fold Consultants wanted to get on the administration’s radar and win city business. He did what he could to cozy up to the mayor — joining him on an economic development trip to Brazil; hiring Stone Age, the Nagin clan’s company, to redo his kitchen — to little avail. Then came the fateful day in January 2008 when, just as Three Fold’s executives were waiting to learn whether they’d win a spot in a pool of firms eligible for some big recovery projects, the mayor’s son Jeremy showed up unannounced seeking a so-called investment in Stone Age.

Realizing they were in a pay-to-play environment and feeling cornered, Williams and his former partner Bassam Mekari testified, they formed a shell corporation and wrote three $20,000 checks. To Williams’ surprise, Nagin himself was at Stone Age’s Earhart Boulevard office when he dropped the money off, he said.

“The mayor told me he was tapped out and he didn’t have any additional funding to put into the company, and he appreciated me considering putting the money up that his sons had requested,” Williams testified.

Soon thereafter, Nagin told Williams he’d made the cut, the city work started flowing, and Jeremy Nagin showed up again seeking another $10,000, which Three Fold reluctantly coughed up. Three Fold eventually landed contracts totaling more than $2 million.

Mekari testified that he struggled afterward over whether they should have complied, but said Williams told him, “See, I told you it was going to pay off.”

There’s more.

We’ve also known for quite some time that Nagin didn’t take his legal obligation to create, preserve and produce public records seriously. While he was in office, he and his staffers would frequently communicate using a direct-message function on their then-cutting-edge BlackBerry smartphones; reporters who sought access to those messages were told they weren’t archived on a server. Late in Nagin’s tenure, when the administration’s actions were coming under increasing scrutiny, countless emails mysteriously disappeared.

According to Meffert, the back-channel conversations weren’t the result of carelessness or simple disrespect for the process. He said he and Nagin actively sought to subvert the intent of the law by talking about their suspect arrangements via direct message. They did this, he said, to avoid detection for matters that were “sensitive.”

When contractor Bennett, a loose cannon who was “reckless” in his aggressive approach, proposed a deal using the mayor’s official email, the two panicked, Meffert said.

“Nope. Not interested. My sons will not be able to do business with you guys as long as you go after city business,” Nagin responded to Bennett, in an email that his defense attorney Robert Jenkins has highlighted to demonstrate Nagin’s intent to follow the law and avoid improper arrangements.

But Meffert suggested on the stand that it was all a ruse. In a so-called pin-to-pin conversation at about the same time, the mayor theorized that going through his son would give him cover.

“I must tell you I am not comfortable with the way this is going down,” Nagin wrote. “Talked to Frank (Fradella) today and advised him it would be the best if his folks worked thru Jeremy so we could keep the city out of this partnership.”

Stephanie Grace’s email address is sgrace@theadvocate.com.