Ex-New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin guilty of corruption

Ray Nagin, who captivated New Orleanians 12 years ago with a bold pledge to reform a crooked City Hall and went on to serve as the city’s mayor during its darkest time, was convicted by a federal jury Wednesday on 20 of 21 charges alleging that he traded official favors for cash and gifts from city vendors.

Nagin, 57, is the first New Orleans mayor ever to be tried and convicted on corruption charges. His successor, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, called it a “very sad day” and “another clear indication that the people of this city will not tolerate corruption or abuse of power.”

The former mayor, his back to the courtroom, showed no sign of emotion when U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan read the verdict count-by-count, pronouncing “guilty” after all but one. His wife, Seletha, sobbed silently after the jury’s decision was rendered just before 1 p.m., her shoulders shaking as two relatives tried to console her.

When court let out, Nagin had to undergo processing with the U.S. Marshals Service. He will be subject to electronic monitoring while his sentencing is pending.

At around 2:30 p.m., he walked out of the federal courthouse into a scrum of television cameras, accompanied by his wife and his lawyer, Robert Jenkins. With reporters surrounding him, Nagin offered one terse comment: “I maintain my innocence.” Jenkins vowed to appeal the verdict.

Nagin’s fall was completed nearly four years after he left the mayor’s office with abysmal approval ratings, offering no hint of his once enviable popularity. For the last couple of years, he has been living in anonymity in a subdivision in Frisco, Texas. It is unclear what Nagin, a former auditor and cable-television executive, has been doing for a living.

Nagin will be sentenced June 11, his birthday, by Berrigan, who presided over his nine-day trial. Federal guidelines will likely recommend a stiff sentence of 15 years or more, experts have said, although Berrigan, an appointee of President Clinton who is generally regarded as one of the local bench’s more liberal jurists, is not required to follow the guidelines.

In convicting Nagin, the 12-member jury found that he accepted cash, granite, travel and other things of value from city contractors Rodney Williams and Frank Fradella, and in turn used his influence as mayor to help them land city contracts. The jury also found that a $12,500 monthly consulting job Nagin landed through Fradella after his departure from City Hall in May 2010 amounted to a kickback for earlier favors.

The only count on which Nagin was acquitted involved a $10,000 cash payment that his sons and business partners, Jeremy and Jarin, solicited from Williams in mid-2009. Nagin testified that he didn’t know about the payment at the time and that his sons had simply asked Williams for money to help them move out of town.

The jury, which included six men and six woman, deliberated for a little over six hours over a three-day span, having taken Tuesday off when one juror had an unspecified medical problem. Jury members came from six of the 13 parishes in the Eastern District of Louisiana; nine jurors were white, two Asian and one African-American.

Curious career

Nagin’s conviction marks the end of a peculiar political career that saw the former cable executive rocket from obscurity in late 2001 to nab the city’s highest office after a brief introduction to voters. Surrounded by a field of veteran and less-than-electrifying contenders, Nagin charmed New Orleanians with his twinkling eyes and blunt talk.

He promised to remove patronage from city politics, tried to renegotiate sweetheart deals left by his predecessor, Marc Morial, and floated bold ideas — like selling the airport and bottling the city’s drinking water— that never panned out. He also was a Pied Piper for the digital age, pledging to use technology to revolutionize city government.

Ironically, it was in the technology office he created where the corruption in his administration started to fester. Aided by a 2004 executive order signed by Nagin that exempted tech services from city bidding rules, chief technology officer Greg Meffert steered millions of dollars in work to his friend Mark St. Pierre and a group of other pals that shared a party yacht. Years later, Meffert would confess that St. Pierre was bribing him.

Nagin also introduced the BlackBerry to City Hall, doling the newfangled devices out to all of his top aides. Their heavy use of emails — and especially “pin-to-pin” communications, similar to texts — would later prove invaluable to federal authorities as they built a case against first Meffert, and then Nagin.

While Jenkins derided the federal case for lacking surreptitiously recorded video and, as he put it, “cash in the freezer,” the emails and texts sent at the time of the crimes helped to corroborate the government’s theory of the case, and bolstered the testimony of several compromised witnesses for the prosecution.

Among the many memorable, and damning, emails introduced in the case was a May 2006 “pin” to cinema owner George Solomon, who had just booked the mayor and his family on a private jet to New York, that read: “Thanks a bunch. You the man!” Nagin had just offered Solomon his help in getting a debt to the city reduced; the jet ride cost $23,500, prosecutors said.

In another message shown at the trial, Nagin — referring to himself as “Mayor Ray Nagin” — griped to a Home Depot functionary that the Nagin family’s granite business, Stone Age, wasn’t getting enough work from the retailer, and complained of “broken promises.” That message, and a number of others, undercut Nagin’s argument that he was nothing but a “financier” for Stone Age, and led company officials to conclude they were being shaken down.

Struggling financially

While the picture of Nagin that emerged at trial wasn’t a flattering one, he did not come across as a greed-driven man who couldn’t wait to get his hands on the levers of power so that he could begin feathering his nest. Rather, he appeared ethically careless, so incurious that he never really sought counsel on whether he was flirting with danger by blurring the lines between his public position and his private financial life.

And privately, things weren’t going that well. Nagin took a major pay cut when he left Cox Communications to become mayor, a fact he mentioned on the witness stand, and he had a wife and three children to support. He tried to set up his oldest son, Jeremy, in the granite business, forming Stone Age with him in 2005.

The company was at the center of the federal case against the mayor. Much of the bribe money that the jury found Nagin guilty of taking landed in Stone Age’s bank account. Some of that, it appeared, was to take the pressure off the mayor, who had invested $530,000 of his own money into the company, according to the government.

While Nagin portrayed himself as a “passive” investor and claimed Stone Age belonged to his sons, who were in their early 20s at the time, evidence showed otherwise, and the jury clearly didn’t buy it.

Williams, the founder of the New Orleans engineering firm Three Fold Consultants, testified to devastating effect that Nagin had solicited $60,000 from him in early 2008 as Three Fold was awaiting word on whether it would be included in a “pool” of contractors eligible for multiple city jobs. The mayor told Williams he was “tapped out” and thanked him when Williamsd and his partners came through with the checks.

A government exhibit buttressed Williams’ testimony, showing that Stone Age’s accounts had been in the red when the money arrived. The same was true a few months later when Nagin asked Fradella for an infusion of $100,000 into Stone Age. Fradella, who was angling for major deals at the Market Street power plant and the old Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans East, couldn’t come up with that much money. And with a federal Securities and Exchange Commission inquiry into his company brewing, Fradella didn’t want his fingerprints on a transfer.

So he got a crooked member of his board, Michael McGrath, to write a check for half that amount from his daughter’s trust account.
To make up the difference, Fradella said he sent Stone Age two shipments of free granite, totaling four truckloads, from a business he owned in Tampa, Fla.

The testimony about the free granite was tough to shrug off, in part because two witnesses who had no criminal exposure in the case testified that they helped prepare the shipments. While Nagin claimed the granite was worthless and suggested he was doing Fradella a favor by taking it off his hands, the witnesses said otherwise, estimating its value, conservatively, at close to $100,000.

In a memorable and lengthy turn on the witness stand — where he had promised a reporter he would “get some truth out” — Nagin shrugged off the two witnesses’ testimony, referring to one of them as “the guy Frank (Fradella) fired” and the other as “not a granite guy.”

Katrina mayor

Nagin’s corruption conviction may well be his epitaph. But he will also always be the Katrina mayor, the man who on Aug. 29, 2005, found himself in charge of a city that was mostly underwater, and that many Americans thought should not be rebuilt.

He took enormous criticism for his administration’s handling of the post-storm flooding, but he fought hard to win re-election in a racially polarized campaign in 2006. During his second term, City Hall seemed increasingly rudderless, and New Orleanians of all stripes grew restive. By the time he left office, his approval ratings were below 25 percent.

Nagin’s relationship with the public, and by extension the news media, started to sour, and reporters began digging into his calendar and emails, along with those of top aides.

The resulting reports helped spawn the probe into Meffert and St. Pierre, and eventually, the mayor. Nagin lied to the FBI when he was questioned about who paid for family trips to Hawaii and Jamaica in early 2009, according to Special Agent Dan Evans’ testimony, and that piqued more federal interest.

“When I’m being told something that is untrue, that makes me believe he has something to conceal,” Evans testified.

Around the same time, the Nagin administration produced a redacted version of the mayor’s 2008 calendar in response to a request from television reporter Lee Zurik. When a complete calendar was produced after a lawsuit brought by Zurik and his station, it showed that Nagin had attempted to conceal all of his meetings with Fradella and Williams — setting out a fairly clear road map for federal authorities.

The redactions, too, made for damning testimony, serving to underscore for the jury that Nagin knew those interactions were problematic. The former mayor tried to blame his legal staff for the cross-outs, an argument prosecutors mocked, asking how the city’s lawyers knew what to redact without Nagin’s input.

It was one of many instances in which Nagin tried such a pivot. Jurors said they were unimpressed by his unwillingness to own up.

“I felt like he did not take responsibility for anything and wouldn’t even acknowledge his own signature directly,” said juror Jennifer Connolly, 32, one of two New Orleanians on the panel. “It was frustrating to watch.”