Ex-mayor’s trial reveals his flexibility on what others see as fact
Even as much of New Orleans was swooning over mayoral candidate Ray Nagin in 2002, there were hints of trouble to come.
A little more than a week before the March runoff, his claim to be a certified public accountant was revealed as false. It wasn’t invented from whole cloth: Nagin had in fact passed the CPA exam, but he hadn’t completed the training and thus was not certified.
The next day, the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research announced that Nagin had essentially reneged on a pledge he had signed before the primary, promising to reform the awarding of professional-services contracts at City Hall. The group said Nagin’s “modification” of the pledge — a change that kept patronage power vested in the mayor — amounted to a nullification of it.
In both cases, Nagin refused to concede a mistake. He questioned whether the CPA flap was a “real issue” and noted he was “not guilty of résumé fraud or anything of that nature,” even though the head of the CPA licensing board called it “very serious.”
Nagin brushed off BGR’s criticism as well, insisting, despite evidence to the contrary, that his “modified” plan for contracting reform went further than the one the organization had proposed and highlighting his opponent’s failure to propose any change at all.
Those early episodes in Nagin’s political career revealed something about the future mayor that eventually became apparent to most New Orleanians and that was laid bare at his corruption trial this month: He has an uncanny ability to see the truth as something flexible, rather than fixed.
That ability, it seems, allows him to believe in things that most people would regard as simply false — including, in some cases, his own version of how a particular situation unfolded. It may be the quality that led him to refuse overtures from the government for a plea deal and to take the stand in his own defense in the belief that, once the 12 jurors heard from him, they would understand.
Of course, that’s not how it turned out. Nagin was convicted on 20 of 21 counts — a verdict that, according to his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, he did not see coming, even though many courtroom observers had opined throughout the trial that he was getting clobbered. For the next four months, he’ll await sentencing at his townhouse in Frisco, Texas, where he’s under strict home confinement.
Shades of gray
Nagin’s ability to see shades of gray in situations where most people see only black and white was epitomized by his reaction to a 2007 Times-Picayune story that said he had failed to vote in an election that he later chastised thousands of New Orleans voters for skipping.
The newspaper had relied on voting records supplied by the Secretary of State’s Office. But Nagin refused to give in. “I don’t believe that report,” he said in a television interview.
Confronted with still more paper records showing he hadn’t voted, he still wouldn’t budge. “I guess we can just agree to disagree,” he said finally.
A couple of years later, in June 2009, he behaved similarly when a reporter asked him about records that showed an employee of City Hall technology vendor Mark St. Pierre had been paying for landscaping services at the homes of Nagin and Greg Meffert, the city’s chief technology officer, in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
“Not sure where you are getting that from,” Nagin responded by email. “I pay to have my home and lawn maintained.”
When the reporter cited the document, he just dug in deeper: “As I stated before I pay for maintenance on my home. Your source is not good.”
The stakes were much higher in an interview Nagin gave around the same time. That time, his questioner was Dan Evans, an FBI supervisor.
Evans was investigating Meffert and St. Pierre at the time, not the mayor, but he asked Nagin anyhow about his family’s trips to Hawaii and Jamaica — trips Evans knew St. Pierre had underwritten. According to Evans’ testimony at the trial, Nagin said no one had paid his way.
That set off alarm bells, Evans said, noting that when a subject lies, there’s usually a reason. Soon, Nagin was a federal target himself.
Nagin seemed to fall into similar traps during his turn on the witness stand, and it hurt his credibility with the jury.
When he tried to say that redactions from his electronic calendar marked “P” and “EP” stood for “Penya” Moses-Fields and “Evelyn Pugh,” two city lawyers, prosecutors were able to point to the explanation his administration gave at the time. That “key” showed that “P” stood for “private” and “EP” for “executive privilege.” Besides, prosecutors asked, why would two city lawyers have taken it upon themselves to black out meetings that Nagin had held with businessmen who were “investing” in his granite company, as the mayor put it, or bribing him, as the government saw it?
Nagin quibbled about various other details: He said he didn’t recognize the offices of the granite company, Stone Age, in a picture the government offered as evidence and that he didn’t recognize his signature on some of the purchases made with his city credit card. He said he didn’t recognize his son’s phone number in yet another exhibit, and he claimed to have reimbursed the city for an anniversary meal with his wife — exasperating prosecutor Matt Coman, who said the reimbursement was for a different anniversary meal and demanded proof to back up Nagin’s claim.
“What do you mean, do I have a receipt?” Nagin asked. “I don’t have one.”
Jurors interviewed after the verdict said Nagin’s inability to admit to the small stuff hurt his credibility. If he was prepared to dispute the veracity of phone records and lunch appointments, they said, why should they believe him when he said he hadn’t been involved in the shakedowns the government alleged?
Nagin’s dodges on the stand seemed to give credence to the government’s broader narrative: that after he left a job at Cox Communications that paid him around $400,000 a year, he found it difficult to adjust to the mayoral salary of about one-third as much — and that, in trying to make up some of the difference, he crossed the line.
Here again, Nagin walked into a couple of traps. He noted, with a touch of self-pity, that he took “a 300 percent pay cut” by becoming mayor, adding: “I went from having a seven-figure net worth (to), when I left office, not having much of that left.”
Coman jumped on the opening: “And so while you took a pay cut ... you took from city contractors to supplement your income, didn’t you?” he asked.
“That’s not true,” Nagin said. “I was prepared to do what it takes” financially to support Stone Age. “I continued to fund that company for many months and years after that. It wasn’t until all of this negative stuff started to have surfaced that we concluded the business wasn’t going to go forward. But I still had the resources to go forward.”
But again, other evidence cast doubt on Nagin’s contention.
For instance, David White, Nagin’s former best friend, testified that he helped support the mayor financially through some of his first term, for a time sending him $7,500 a month, because Nagin was struggling financially. White had to turn the spigot off in 2006, around the same time Nagin began pouring much of his net worth into Stone Age.
The granite company landed an exclusive installation contract with Home Depot as tens of thousands of New Orleanians were rebuilding their homes.
Nagin sought to persuade the jury that the contract was unimportant to the family firm. That let him dispute the government’s claim that he did political favors for Home Depot to get the contract. But he seemed to contradict himself minutes later when he noted that Stone Age needed to make huge investments to handle the Home Depot contract, including buying a single piece of equipment he said cost roughly $300,000.
By early 2008, Nagin’s financial picture had grown more dire, and Stone Age’s account had a negative balance when Nagin, according to testimony, solicited and received a $60,000 bribe from Rodney Williams of the engineering firm Three Fold Consultants. Soon afterward, evidence showed, Stone Age lost the Home Depot work, and its accounts were in the red again when Nagin hit up city contractor Frank Fradella a few months later for another $100,000. Fradella came through with half that amount, plus two shipments of free granite that were worth at least $50,000, according to testimony.
Nagin claimed the free granite was “not worth $10,” contradicting the claims of three government witnesses who said it was likely worth in the low six figures.
A job for narcissists?
Political strategist Karen Carvin, who with her late father, Jim, ran Nagin’s two successful mayoral campaigns before they fell out in his second term, said she believes some of the qualities that landed Nagin in hot water also contributed to his success in politics.
It takes a healthy ego, a belief in one’s own charm, to run for office in the first place, she said. Many of those who do it, like Nagin, are able to warp reality a bit — claiming credentials they don’t have, blinding themselves to their own flaws, believing they can talk their way out of tight spots.
In short, some of those who succeed in politics are narcissists, Carvin said.
“People who are narcissists never think it’s their fault,” she said. “It’s very hard for them to accept blame and responsibility.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed on Feb. 16 to clarify Karen Carvin’s remarks.