Supporting witnesses may be crucial in Nagin trial

Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin will again take the stand Friday, February 7, 2014 at his federal corruption trial. Show caption
Advocate photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin will again take the stand Friday, February 7, 2014 at his federal corruption trial.

The central allegation in the federal case against former Mayor Ray Nagin is that he sold his office by taking bribes from city vendors, offering his considerable influence to help them land work at City Hall and elsewhere in return.

But if Nagin is found guilty by the jury that is set to begin deliberating Monday, some of the more peripheral aspects of the government’s case could be crucial in carrying the day.

The jury heard from 26 prosecution witnesses, five of whom testified that they either bribed Nagin directly or helped pass cash or gifts to him. But all five have their own criminal issues — a fact that Nagin and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, highlighted at every opportunity.

One member of that rogues’ gallery, Michael McGrath, testified while shackled at the wrists and clad in the orange jumpsuit he wears while serving a 14-year sentence for stealing $140 million in an audacious fraud. Another leading government witness, Greg Meffert, Nagin’s former chief technology officer and neighbor, has confessed to lying under oath to the FBI and in a civil deposition about his bribe-taking before finally taking a plea.

Meffert “is quite a storyteller,” Nagin noted dryly at one point.

Three of the confessed bribe-passers still await sentencing. All of them are hoping prosecutors will go to bat for them, recommending shorter sentences, in return for their helping the government to bag a high-profile target like the former mayor of New Orleans.

Far less compromised, and perhaps more persuasive as a result, was the testimony given by the dozen-plus prosecution witnesses who had no criminal exposure — indeed, no culpability at all — and thus no apparent incentive to please the government by helping prove its case.

Home Depot queasy

For instance, four different current and former Home Depot officials took the stand, and all said they were very uncomfortable with Nagin’s efforts to drum up business for his family’s granite firm, Stone Age, even as the massive retailer was negotiating tax breaks, the sale of streets and other sticking points with the city for a store Home Depot was seeking to open in Central City. They contradicted Nagin’s claims that Stone Age was really his sons’ business, not his, and that he took pains not to let his role as mayor and his role as “financier” in the granite firm overlap.

Emails showed Nagin originally wanted Home Depot to pay the city $850,000, the appraised value, for some streets the chain needed to close to build its store. However, the mayor later went along with the $100,000 price the retailer was willing to pay, and the government argued that was because Stone Age was lining up a lucrative installation contract with Home Depot at the same time.

The evidence for that was far from clear-cut. City Councilwoman Stacy Head had pushed to accept the lower price, and the council unanimously approved an ordinance endorsing it that Nagin signed. The former mayor testified that the 7-0 vote was “veto-proof” and thus not worth fighting, though prosecutors countered with an example of another law passed by a 7-0 vote that Nagin did veto.

Whether Nagin indeed put the kibosh on a “community benefits agreement,” or CBA, meant to guarantee a certain number of “living wage” jobs to those who lived in the blighted area near the store was also unclear.

But it was quite plain, from emails introduced into evidence, that Nagin offered the retailer his help in killing the proposed community agreement — even calling Home Depot’s CEO to do so. And the witnesses thought Nagin had crossed a line.

“Once the mayor offered his support, did Home Depot feel comfortable it could go ahead without signing the CBA?” prosecutor Matt Coman asked Sarah Price, the Home Depot manager in charge of getting the new store approved.

“Yes,” Price said.

Within a week of Nagin’s call, Stone Age was signing a contract to handle all of the granite installations for three of Home Depot’s area stores.

That contract was struck for political reasons, according to the testimony of Cane Womack, a Home Depot manager who visited Stone Age’s shop at the time and found the operation “unimpressive.” Womack’s boss told him to proceed with Stone Age anyway, saying: “It can’t hurt to have the mayor on our side.”

What did his boss mean? Coman asked.

Womack replied, “If you tell the mayor no, it could cause some problems for you.”

Although Nagin testified that his role in Stone Age was “passive,” other than providing capital and advice to his sons, internal Home Depot emails showed otherwise.

They showed that Nagin had started the ball rolling by calling a high-ranking Home Depot executive to talk up his family’s firm. The executive sought advice from Home Depot’s governmental-relations team, which was instantly queasy.

Eric Criss, who worked for top Home Depot lobbyist Kent Knutson, wrote at the time: “These guys better be damn careful. Didn’t we just get an incentive from New Orleans?”

Yes, Price replied by email, noting the retailer was negotiating a deal with the neighborhood and had already gotten a tax break from the city.

“Dangerous to use an elected official family business,” she warned.

In her testimony, Price said she had dealt with hundreds of public officials while developing stores for Home Depot, and none had ever made an approach to the retailer like Nagin’s.

The jury also heard a troubling account from Pattie Stoddard, the Home Depot manager who oversaw Stone Age’s work once it had signed on. In testimony backed up by emails, she said Nagin, introducing himself as “Mayor Ray Nagin,” contacted her in 2007 to grouse that Stone Age wasn’t getting enough work and the giant retailer was breaking earlier “promises.” In response, Home Depot wound up assigning two more stores to Stone Age, even though the small company was struggling to perform the work it already was getting.

‘Not worth $10’

Also damaging to Nagin was corroborating testimony about two shipments of free granite from a company owned by Frank Fradella, one of the businessmen who pleaded guilty to bribing Nagin.

Like some of the other government witnesses, Fradella is deeply compromised, having pleaded guilty to bribing Nagin as part of a deal that reduced his exposure in a separate federal stock-fraud case. His testimony that the 145 slabs of free granite he sent Stone Age from a yard in Tampa, Fla., combined with a $50,000 check, were meant to make up a six-figure bribe to Nagin could therefore be written off as self-serving.

Indeed, the mayor sought to persuade the jury that the no-cost granite was worthless.

“I wouldn’t put a value of $10 on those slabs,” Nagin said. He added that the slabs crumbled and fell apart when his sons tried to cut them.

Nagin also claimed that the original plan had been for Stone Age to sell the material for Fradella’s firm, which was being liquidated, “on consignment,” though he never explained why Fradella couldn’t find a showroom closer to Tampa.

When the granite proved worthless, Nagin said, there was no need to pay for it or record it as a gift.

But it was hard to reconcile the mayor’s account with that of three earlier witnesses, former Fradella employees who are not accused of any misconduct and have no apparent incentive to lie.

One of them, Larry Laseter, acknowledged some of the 84 slabs in the first shipment had nicks and scratches. But 27 of them were perfect, he said, and all were usable. He estimated that shipment’s value at roughly $40,000.

When prosecutor Coman asked him about Laseter’s testimony, Nagin referred to him dismissively as “the guy that Frank fired.”

Because the Nagins were displeased with the first shipment, Fradella put a different employee in charge of the next one. That employee, Robert Rouyer, testified that he spent two days selecting the best slabs of rock from Home Solutions’ yard.

Nagin again shrugged it off on the stand, saying Rouyer was just wrong: “I heard him say he thought they were good, but he’s not a granite guy.”

Corroborating effect

The testimony from such bit players as Rouyer and Laseter, crucial in its own way, also served to buttress the credibility of the more thorough accounts given by the central players in the alleged scheme.

And of course, not all of those central players are as compromised as Fradella, Meffert and McGrath. The strongest testimony of any alleged co-conspirators came from Rodney Williams and Bassam Mekari, partners in the engineering firm Three Fold Consultants.

Williams recounted how Nagin asked him to “invest” $60,000 in Stone Age in January 2008, saying he was “tapped out.” That squared with bank records showing that Stone Age’s bank accounts — into which Nagin had been pumping about $10,000 monthly — had a negative balance when the checks from Williams and his two partners arrived.

Williams also recounted how he was blindsided when the FBI asked him about the checks and how he initially lied about it.

While investigators knew about the $60,000, and another $2,250 check Williams wrote to Stone Age, they didn’t know about a $10,000 alleged cash bribe Mekari paid Nagin’s sons in July 2009, at least until Mekari told them about it upon pleading guilty. His account, too, was backed up by some paperwork: a personal check for $10,000 from Mekari made out to cash, followed by a $10,000 check from Three Fold to Mekari several days later, to make him whole for the alleged bribe.

Nagin testified that he knew nothing about the money at the time, saying his sons hit up Williams for cash because he was a “friend.” He said they got $7,000, not $10,000, and that Three Fold’s nearly simultaneous receipt of a $1 million professional-services contract from the city was purely coincidence.

That was far from the only such accident of timing Nagin claimed. When prosecutors presented evidence showing, over and over, that an action taken by Nagin was closely preceded by or followed by the receipt of cash or a gift, he shrugged it off.

For instance, Three Fold got a coveted spot in a “pool” of engineering firms eligible for multiple city contracts shortly after Williams and his partners gave Nagin and his sons $60,000.

“You’re trying to tie in the $60,000 (to the approval), and God bless you,” Nagin said, shaking his head, in answer to one question from Coman.

In the end, jurors may find it hard to accept that so many coincidences were intertwined and overlaid in ways that all seem to reflect poorly on Nagin. In the mayor’s testimony, he refused to take responsibility for almost every act prosecutors attributed to him — from mayoral executive orders to calendar redactions — blaming them instead on his secretary, his city attorneys, his contract review panels, his sons. And in Nagin’s account of things, the government’s broad array of witnesses, even those with only tenuous connections to him and no obvious motive to please prosecutors, were collaborating to paint a false and damning picture of the former mayor.

That was a point Coman hammered Nagin on in his lengthy cross-examination Friday, finally asking him in exasperation: “Do you ever intend on taking responsibility for your own actions?”

It’s a question the government will likely try to plant in the jury’s mind in closing arguments Monday.