Stephanie Grace: Nagin, Jefferson comparison odd

Ray Nagin’s attorney may have been trying to inject a little comic relief into the former New Orleans mayor’s bribery trial when he noted that nobody had discovered “money in the freezer.” Defense attorney Robert Jenkins, though, was making something of a real point: Unlike ex-U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, Nagin isn’t accused of trading a briefcase full of cash for official favors.

Still, it was odd to bring up any comparison at all to another once-influential politician, one who’s serving a 13-year sentence in federal prison.

Nagin and Jefferson had a complicated relationship. They started as fierce adversaries — it was reportedly Jefferson, a key backer of Nagin’s 2002 opponent, Richard Pennington, who first questioned Nagin’s Democratic credentials by calling him “Ray Reagan” — but relations quickly thawed. When Nagin endorsed Jefferson’s 2006 re-election bid despite the ongoing federal investigation into the congressman’s finances, the mayor said he was simply returning the favor after his own election, in yet another sign that Nagin had long-since given up the pretense that he was a new-style politician.

The evidence in Nagin’s trial suggests that the two had even more in common than anyone knew. Like Jefferson, it turns out, Nagin clearly understood how to leverage his powerful position for personal gain.

Jokes aside, Jefferson was actually acquitted on charges stemming from the $90,000 he’d stashed in pie crust and veggie burger boxes in his freezer, marked bills from an investor purporting to tap into Jefferson’s many contacts in African politics but secretly working with the feds. What sent him to prison was the jury’s belief that he’d effectively cashed in by using his official position to help his benefactors gain access to foreign leaders and potentially helpful American government officials.

It was hard not to think of Jefferson’s story while listening to testimony about Nagin’s dealings with Home Depot.

Documents from the time show Nagin was weighing city breaks for the chain’s new Central City store and, simultaneously, leaning on Home Depot officials to give his family granite business work.

Nagin was cautious enough about using his official email that he refused to negotiate with contractor Aaron Bennett, whom he considered indiscreet, even reckless.

But he had no qualms about using his email, and invoking his position both implicitly and explicitly, to get his way with Home Depot officials. And although his strategy prompted immediate alarm in the corporate ranks, it worked like a charm.

According to emails and testimony from company officials, Nagin offered to intervene in a neighborhood effort backed by District Councilwoman Stacy Head to require the store to pay area residents above-market wages in exchange for government concessions. Nagin also called a high-ranking company executive to talk about getting Stone Age, the family granite business, on the list to install countertops for several area outlets.

One of the firm’s lobbyists responded by urging extreme caution: “These guys better be damn careful. Didn’t we just get an incentive from New Orleans?” he wrote.

“Dangerous to use an elected official family business,” another executive warned, noting that the company had already secured a tax break and was still negotiating with the neighborhood.

When Nagin left a message for the firm’s CEO, its top lobbyist advised him not to return the call.

Still, Home Depot decided to play ball.

“Can’t hurt to have the mayor on our side,” one official said.

When Nagin wrote to another company representative to complain that Stone Age wasn’t getting enough referrals from the arrangement, she was told to sign the Nagin firm up for more stores, even though Home Depot’s internal analysis had deemed Stone Age’s setup unimpressive and its financial viability “high risk.”

“Given the political nature of this relationship, I think it’s better to move forward and expect performance,” company executive Cane Womack wrote to a clearly nervous subordinate. Asked on the stand why he’d given Stone Age three more stores in addition to the original two, Womack responded that his company was trying to help New Orleans recover from Katrina but also that, “If you tell the mayor no, it could cause some problems for you.”

Throughout the relationship, Nagin communicated with company officials via his official email and referred to himself as “Mayor Ray Nagin” even when discussing personal business.

No Home Depot officials were charged with a crime, but nobody should shed any tears for the company. Other emails suggested that executives felt they were being shaken down not only by Nagin but by the community groups demanding concessions from a company getting city benefits. They’re hardly the same thing. And it’s not like the company went to the feds while all this was happening. Instead, it only terminated the relationship once it was exposed in the press.

Still, Nagin put Home Depot in a position that no elected official should ever put a private company in. And just like his rival-turned-ally, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing.

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