Nagin both folksy and testy during first day on the stand

Jurors weighing the fate of Ray Nagin got the full measure of the former mayor Thursday. His hotly anticipated turn on the witness stand began with folksy, casual testimony in which Nagin portrayed himself as a passive functionary who, both as mayor and as a partner in a family granite company, simply signed documents that were required of him but played little role in making the decisions.

Wearing a navy blue suit and a yellow tie and looking relaxed and confident, Nagin flatly denied the charges in a sweeping, 21-count federal indictment that accuses him of corruptly selling his office to city vendors who showered him with cash and gifts and got contracts and political favors in return.

He said he scarcely knew most of the people who testified that they paid him off, and had only hazy memories of meeting some of them, such as technology vendor Mark St. Pierre, now serving a 17-year sentence in federal prison for bribing one of Nagin’s aides. The self-portrait Nagin painted was one of a chief executive too busy to remember names, faces and details as he desperately tried to save his beleaguered city.

At times, he addressed the jury directly: “I’m sure you guys remember the Katrina story,” he began one answer, by way of explaining why his administration was trying in 2007 to approve dozens of engineering firms at the same time.

But jurors got to see another side of the former mayor on cross-examination, when Nagin, cool and composed at first, became by turns testy, argumentative and frustrated over nearly four hours on the witness stand as Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman tried to poke holes in his testimony.

U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan sent jurors home at 4:30 p.m. Thursday because of bad weather. Coman’s cross-examination, which appeared to be in its early stages, will resume Friday morning. It’s unclear whether Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, plans to call additional witnesses.

One prosecution ploy appeared especially effective Thursday — a potentially crucial document that the government did not introduce in presenting its case, reserving it instead for cross-examination.

Under questioning from his own lawyer, Nagin testified that as mayor, he reformed the process of awarding contracts for professional services such as legal services or engineering work, which by law need not be awarded to the lowest bidder. The corrective was needed because there was “lots of controversy around contracting” under his predecessor, Marc Morial, Nagin said.

Nagin’s reform created “selection review panels,” composed of a handful of city officials plus a member of the public with relevant expertise, that were tasked with ranking eligible firms. The panels would typically recommend three suitable vendors to the mayor, who would then choose the winner.

In late 2007, two such panels were charged with evaluating architecture and engineering firms seeking to do business with either the city’s capital projects administration or its Public Works Department. Because there was so much work to be done after Katrina, the city wanted to approve a large number of firms, who would then be in a “pool” of companies deemed eligible for multiple contracts.

Three Fold Consultants was among the firms that made it into both pools, and in Nagin’s direct testimony, he chalked the firm’s success up to the panel, suggesting he merely went along with its recommendation.

But on cross-examination, Coman unveiled a document that showed the panel overseeing the capital projects pool had in fact not recommended Three Fold for city work. The revelation seemed to rattle Nagin. When asked by Coman to read the panel’s verdict aloud, he said: “This particular committee, which there are many committees, did not recommend them.”

The company wound up on the approved list, and Coman spent the rest of the afternoon trying to get Nagin to admit that he interceded on Three Fold’s behalf because the company’s three partners had each delivered $20,000 bribes to the Nagin family’s foundering granite company, Stone Age.

Before the checks arrived, one government exhibit showed, Stone Age had a negative balance of about $2,000, but it was well in the black after the $60,000 from Three Fold’s partners arrived.

Three Fold’s founder, Rodney Williams, who has pleaded guilty to bribing Nagin, testified last week that he went to Stone Age’s offices on Jan. 16, 2008, to deliver the money, and found Nagin there. The mayor thanked him for the money and said he was “tapped out” and couldn’t put any more money into the family firm, Williams testified.

Nagin, who initially said he didn’t remember that meeting, then said he remembered seeing Williams at Stone Age one day but that he never said anything about being “tapped out” and never solicited a bribe. Asked by Coman whether Williams lied on the stand, Nagin said: “He lied about a couple of things.”

Coman also produced phone records showing that Nagin had called the phone number of Rodney Williams’ late wife, Charlene, on the day of that meeting.

Williams also testified that he and his partners were guests at the mayor’s Mardi Gras ball at Gallier Hall that same night, and that Nagin had embraced him and told him he had gotten him into the coveted “pool” of qualified engineers.

When Coman brought up the ball, Nagin sought to downplay its significance, saying Williams and his partners were there along with “about a thousand of my closest friends.” When the prosecutor flashed pictures of the event on a screen and asked Nagin to identify himself and Williams in a couple of frames, Nagin insisted several times he couldn’t recognize the engineer.

“It kind of looks like him,” Nagin said. “I don’t know who took this picture. They’re not a good photographer.”

That was one of numerous times Nagin and Coman tussled, with Nagin often expressing irritation and refusing to stipulate to basic facts — that a certain phone number was his son’s, for instance, or that a copy of one of his mayoral executive orders that Coman displayed was genuine.

When Coman asked Nagin whether a picture being displayed showed Stone Age’s Palm Street storefront, Nagin said, “I’ll take your word for it.”

Several times, Jenkins complained to U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan that Coman was invading Nagin’s personal space. But Nagin intervened, drawing a laugh when he quipped: “I like this guy. You don’t?”

The former mayor had an easier time of things during his direct testimony, as Jenkins quizzed him about the awarding of city contracts and his limited role in the process.

Nagin sought to portray himself as more of a bureaucrat than an executive decision-maker, acknowledging that no city contract is valid without the mayor’s signature but suggesting that he had little or nothing to do with picking winners. He said he spent a lot of time signing contracts, calling it a “tremendous burden,” but concerned himself little with who got the work.

Upon taking the stand, Nagin harked back to his election as a reform candidate in 2002, saying he lived up to a promise he made then to clean up things at City Hall.

“We wanted to make sure it was done fairly … that before it got to my desk, there was no politics involved,” he said.

Nagin denied doing anything special for St. Pierre or Williams, both of whom have admitted funneling bribes to the Stone Age.

Nagin said he hardly knew St. Pierre, dimly recalling an introduction at a holiday party, and he strongly denied knowing that the businessman was paying for his family’s vacations to Hawaii and Jamaica. He said he thought his former chief technology officer, Greg Meffert — whom he called “accomplished” and “aggressive” — was bankrolling those trips.

“There was a trip that was taken to Hawaii around Christmastime, I don’t remember what year,” Nagin recalled. “Greg came to me and said, ‘Look, man, we’re going to Hawaii. We rented a house, and if you want to join us, you’re welcome to.’ I said, Fine.’ ”

When Jenkins asked whether he knew the tab had actually been picked up by St. Pierre, Nagin said: “I had no idea this was going on.”

In testimony last week, Meffert — who has pleaded guilty to taking $860,000 in bribes from St. Pierre and awaits sentencing — said he made sure the mayor knew his benefactor was St. Pierre. “I wanted to make sure Mark got credit,” Meffert said, so that St. Pierre’s spigot of city work would remain wide open.

Several times, Nagin sought to avoid responsibility for his actions as mayor. He explained, for instance, that he had no choice but to sign construction contracts with the firm that submitted the lowest bid, such as the deals won by Frank Fradella, another admitted Nagin briber.

He also tried to disown a 2004 executive order he signed that exempted technology services from normal city bidding rules, making it easier for St. Pierre’s firm to get no-bid work.

Nagin blamed then-City Attorney Sherry Landry for the order, the first one of his tenure.

“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.

Nagin characterized Williams as being closer to his two sons than to him.

He said his sons came along on a city economic development trip to Brazil, and so did Williams. The Nagin boys hit it off with Williams, whom Nagin compared to an older brother for them.

“Rodney took them partying in Brazil,” Nagin said. “If you can imagine some guys in their 20s in Brazil, they were quite excited. They thought that he was kind of cool and this was a guy they could learn a lot from.”

When Williams later hired Stone Age to install countertops in his home, he was very impressed by the firm’s work, Nagin said.

“This particular job was highlighted for excellence in a national magazine … as a great job that these young guys were doing,” he said.

In fact, the job was so expertly done that Williams wanted to invest in the firm, Nagin said, and that’s how Williams and two partners wound up each writing $20,000 checks to Stone Age.

Nagin said the $60,000 was correctly recorded on Stone Age’s tax forms as an investment, though he again sought to distance himself from the bookkeeping, emphasizing that “my sons and wife basically handled that side of things.”

“We turned that over to the tax accountant,” Nagin said. “We talked to them about this investment and how would it affect the ownership.”

Williams and one of his partners, Bassam Mekari, last week described the payments as bribes given in order to get Three Fold more city work. An exhibit produced by the government showed that the firm’s volume of city work increased more than fivefold after the payments to Stone Age.

Nagin suggested in his direct testimony that Three Fold’s spike in work mostly was a result of Katrina, saying the city was suddenly awarding far more contracts than before.

Nagin confirmed that he tended to use BlackBerry “pin-to-pin” messages to communicate with important people. He said he did so because he felt the messages were more secure and less apt to be intercepted, noting that he communicated with important people including “just about every living president out there” along with dignitaries such as Prince Charles.

He said the use of “pins” was never aimed at keeping nefarious deeds hidden, as the prosecution has suggested.

“I’ve heard a lot throughout this trial that don’t make sense,” Nagin said, shaking his head.