Stephanie Grace: Nagin trial prompts lots of questions

So many questions hang over former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s trial.

There’s the long-running question over the mayor’s strategy: Given the documents at prosecutors’ disposal and the array of witnesses who have confessed to bribing Nagin, why didn’t he plead guilty rather than risk the severe sentence a trial conviction would bring?

There are the endless variations on another query: “What was he thinking?” The trial hasn’t offered too many answers on this front.

Nagin has never been much for details, but during his turn on the stand he claimed to be detached to a spectacular degree. To hear him tell it, he signed whatever documents his staff put in front of him. He never made a connection between payments to his family granite business — which he called his sons’ company despite documents pegging his ownership at 20 percent to 60 percent — and city contracts that went to the people who made those payments.

He even said he put no thought into signing a key 2004 executive order that gave convicted contractor Mark St. Pierre, now serving a 17-year sentence for bribing former Nagin tech chief Greg Meffert, the right to tap into millions in city work without going through a bid process, all in the form of hard-to-trace subcontracts. He did this despite having promised during his 2002 campaign to clean up contracting, which he insisted on the stand remained a priority. He said the executive order was all his city attorney’s idea.

“Sherry Landry came to me and said, ‘This seems to be a good process and we need you to sign it,’ so I signed it,” Nagin said. St. Pierre wound up underwriting several luxury vacations for his family and lawn care for his home.

Nagin also said he had nothing to do with redacting meetings with vendors who admitted paying bribes from the calendar that then-WWL-TV reporter Lee Zurik requested. The redactions, he insisted, were the work of another other city attorney, Penya Moses-Fields and her deputy Evelyn Pugh (prosecutors said the P and EP markings stood for “private” and “executive privilege,” but Nagin said the lawyers had marked their initials).

Another question that has to be on jurors’ minds: Why haven’t they heard from the Nagin sons, who were always going to be a part of this case but have turned out to be major figures?

Nagin claimed to be merely a “financier” of Stone Age, the firm he started with sons Jeremy and Jarin and would go on to fund to the tune of more than $500,000. He insisted that he only went to the company office — where Rodney Williams, who testified that he paid bribes to Stone Age in exchange for engineering contracts, saw him when he dropped off $60,000 — to spend some quality family time .

Later, when confronted with evidence of more significant involvement, Nagin fessed up to advising his sons and even getting in touch with vendors himself when they had trouble. But he insisted that the sons had independent relationships with the contractors in question and solicited “investments” from them on their own. It was the sons who sought and received checks from Williams’ company totaling $72,250.

But here’s the big one: Why did Ray Nagin run for re-election when he was so strapped?

Nagin testified that he willingly took a “300 percent” pay cut from his job at Cox Communications to become mayor. He said he had a seven-figure net worth and was fully prepared to ride out eight years on a government salary, which amounted to around $131,000.

But according to new details from the trial, Nagin realized as early as 2004, halfway through his first term, that he wasn’t making ends meet. So the mayor turned to his friend and former business partner David White for help. White started sending monthly checks of $3,000, and later $7,500. The payments continued for about a year and totaled $90,000, none of which Nagin reported to the IRS as taxable income. This was before Nagin started pumping big bucks into Stone Age.

Things got so bad after Hurricane Katrina that Nagin basically became a freeloader. A Dallas developer supplied two free townhouses to the family after the storm, but eventually had to threaten eviction to get them to purchase or clear out.

With this financial strain on top of the pressure to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina, Nagin clearly had reason to step aside in 2006. People would have understood. City business leaders, who coalesced around opponents Ron Forman and Mitch Landrieu, surely could have found him a soft landing spot. Nagin even could have turned the decision into a positive by making some of the important but electorally dicey calls he refused to make.

Instead, he asked for and won four more years, during which, we now know, his attention was most definitely divided. Did the title, the fame, the prestige go to his head? Did he get addicted to meetings with the president and greetings from Prince Charles on his BlackBerry?

Maybe we already know the answer to that one.

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