Nagin’s trial a coda to an odd political career

A dozen years ago, Ray Nagin completed a remarkable journey from political neophyte to mayoral front-runner, pulling off what had seemed impossible by wrapping himself in the mantle of reformer and beating a field of better-known rivals to win City Hall’s top job.

On Monday, the saga will take another strange turn when Nagin walks into the federal courthouse on Poydras Street to stand trial on 21 counts of corruption, marking the first time in the city’s colorful political history that a mayor has had to answer bribery charges.

So how did the self-described “change agent” — the only one of the major mayoral candidates in 2002 to sign a pledge to overhaul New Orleans’ slippery contracting rules — wind up allegedly becoming the sort of self-enriching bogeyman he ran against?

Publicly, at least, the unraveling might have begun when the Nagin administration fell out with two firms it had hired to install crime cameras around the city.

The spurned contractors eventually filed a lawsuit in 2007 alleging that Nagin’s chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, had conspired with a group of cronies and Dell Inc. to steal their idea.

The vendors never got into Dell’s deep pockets, but they did manage to lay out the first hard evidence of corruption in the Nagin administration — something that had been only hinted at previously — when they got records proving Meffert had use of a credit card belonging to his buddy, City Hall technology contractor Mark St. Pierre.

Now, half a decade later, St. Pierre is two years into a 17-year prison stretch, and Meffert is looking at up to eight years in the penitentiary. He won’t be sentenced until after he testifies against Nagin.

While the bulk of the criminal case against Nagin has little to do with Meffert, it was through Meffert that the mayor met several of the people who would later allegedly give him bribes, and it was Meffert’s ethical lapses that gave off the first whiffs of corruption in the administration.

The outsider

Nagin and Meffert didn’t know each another when Nagin, then the general manager of the local Cox Communications cable franchise, rocketed out of relative obscurity to win the mayor’s office with 59 percent of the vote.

Meffert, who had successfully started a couple of tech firms, was among those wowed by the new mayor’s combination of old-fashioned charisma and bold talk of doing things a new way.

He joined Nagin’s transition team and offered himself as the city’s first chief technology officer. It was a position Nagin, an early adopter of the BlackBerry, heralded as a signal of how serious he was about pushing New Orleans’ musty government into the modern age.

“I was accustomed to George Jetson (in private industry), and now I’m in Fred Flintstone’s world,” Nagin said not long after he took office. (Ironically, perhaps, the Nagin family decided to give the granite firm they founded three years later the name Stone Age.)

Meffert quickly established himself as a central figure in the new administration. He ranged well outside what might be considered the domain of the city’s technology czar, analyzing expensive deals Nagin had inherited from his predecessor, Marc Morial, and denouncing some of them as crooked.

He sought to cozy up to the mayor outside City Hall, too, paying $725,000 in October 2002 for a house a few yards from the mayor’s home on Park Island, an exclusive 27-home subdivision encircled by Bayou St. John.

Shortly after his arrival, Meffert hired a group of his friends from the private sector. Instead of contracting with them directly, though, he had them work under a corporate umbrella belonging to one of them, Imagine Software, and they were nominally overseen by another city contractor. In reality, they reported to Meffert.

The arrangement seemed to violate city procurement rules, and two years into Nagin’s first term, Meffert persuaded his boss to sign an executive order that exempted technology services from those rules.

A few months later, Meffert — who boasted of his big paydays in the private sector and had the accoutrements to match, including a late-model Mercedes and a plantation home on River Road in Convent — offered to take the Nagins to Hawaii with his family.

Nagin, who, like Meffert, had taken a substantial pay cut by going to work for the city, agreed.

It’s not clear whether Meffert ever told the mayor the trip was being underwritten by St. Pierre, Imagine’s managing partner and Meffert’s close friend. Nagin has said Meffert portrayed himself as the sponsor of the trip. The question is likely to come up at the trial.

Around the same time, according to federal prosecutors, St. Pierre began paying for cellphones for some Nagin family members — further evidence of a casual view of ethics. However, the public wouldn’t learn about any of that until the lawsuit over crime cameras was filed, requiring Meffert to submit to a deposition.

The family business

Almost immediately upon the Nagins’ return from Hawaii, the mayor and his eldest son, Jeremy, joined forces with Tarikh Duckworth, a nephew of the mayor’s, to found Stone Age, the countertop firm at the center of most of the allegations against Nagin.

Duckworth was a skilled countertop maker who had taken his cousin under his wing to teach him the trade. The two brought in the mayor because they needed capital and some business advice, Duckworth has said.

With Ray Nagin’s participation, the partners were able to get better tools and a workspace on South Prieur Street. But they were really just getting started when Hurricane Katrina hit, the levees failed and the city was underwater.

The business was in shambles. But so was the city, and thousands of New Orleanians were going to need new countertops as they rebuilt.

In summer 2006, Stone Age found a new home on Earhart Boulevard and started setting its sights a little higher. Jarin Nagin, Jeremy’s younger brother, joined the firm in January 2007, and Duckworth left. Over time, the mayor started spending more time at Stone Age’s offices, often in the late afternoon and evening, though his presence there attracted little notice.

In early 2008, the public would learn that Stone Age had gotten an exclusive arrangement with four Home Depot stores a year earlier, even as the retailer was negotiating tax breaks with the city as well as the sale of some streets. Around the same time, Home Depot had also been trying to avoid having to sign a binding agreement that would require it to do certain things for the surrounding neighborhood. Nagin had offered his help in getting it killed, even calling the company’s CEO.

When news of Nagin’s dealings with Home Depot was published in The Times-Picayune, the mayor brushed it off as “deceptively written” to portray him as dishonest. He said it was one of numerous “minor things ... being blown out of proportion” by a hostile press.

Tension builds

Nagin’s reaction to the Home Depot story was part of a larger pattern: Early in his political career, he had a generally friendly relationship with the media, and vice versa, while the public got a kick out of his sometimes politically incorrect wisecracks and his lack of pretense. Nagin, meanwhile, clearly enjoyed the spotlight.

But after Hurricane Katrina, those dynamics began to change. His leadership amid the storm and the flooding and in the dark months that followed came under fire from almost every quarter. He soon faced a parade of challengers, including some darlings of the Uptown money crowd that had once held him in such high esteem.

A number of former Nagin aides said in interviews that they believed the mayor was deeply hurt and angered by the business community’s sudden abandonment of him. And though he ran hard for re-election in 2006, and won in a tight race, Nagin seemed to lose interest in governing as he began his second term. He frequently took to the road. City Hall, meanwhile, was adrift, led by an ever-changing, increasingly lackluster roster of aides.

Friends have said Nagin also was worrying about money. He had left a job at Cox that paid him roughly $400,000 a year, and he had not lined up a soft place to land after his second term. With his popularity plummeting, his potential value as the face of a local business was also waning.

Coincidentally or not, it was about halfway into his second term that Nagin began taking bribes in earnest, according to the indictment against him.

The public by then had become restive. Thousands took to the streets to protest rising crime in early 2007, rebuffing Nagin when he asked for a chance to speak. Years later, it emerged that he had been emailing back and forth during the rally with the owner of a local chain of stores about a possible granite arrangement.

As public frustration mounted over the slow pace of recovery and what looked like a lack of focus on the mayor’s part, the media began digging more deeply into his comings and goings. Nagin didn’t appreciate it. When The Times-Picayune first questioned him about Stone Age, he angrily replied that his family’s business dealings were none of the press’ business.

Later, he would get much testier in a much more public setting, as WWL-TV started looking into his daily calendar. In one memorable televised rant, he said an upcoming story about his schedule was putting his family at risk, and he threatened to “cold-cock” anyone who “approaches me wrong.”

He also went toe-to-toe with WWL reporter Lee Zurik over Zurik’s stories on the apparent fraud in one of Nagin’s signature blight-remediation programs, asking him at a widely viewed news conference: “How is that report helping the recovery?”

Within weeks, the program, called New Orleans Affordable Homeownership, had been shut down, and FBI agents were seen carting boxes of documents out of its offices. Years later, a group of contractors and the program’s director, Stacey Jackson, were indicted.

In early 2009, when Nagin produced a copy of his calendar in response to requests from the news media, certain appointments were blacked out. Most of his emails also were deleted — deliberately, according to two technology experts who were brought in to recover them.

Among the meetings that were redacted from Nagin’s calendar were visits with businessman Frank Fradella, who was by then a controversial figure. Meffert had helped introduce him to Nagin on a plane trip to Chicago. Fradella, who has admitted to bribing Nagin with cash and free granite, is expected to be a leading witness for the government.

Several thousand emails written and received by the mayor were eventually recovered by a tech firm under contract with the city. They were posted on the city’s website in the final days of Nagin’s term.

Off to Frisco

By then, it had become clear that Nagin’s administration, once presented as the antidote to the alleged cronyism of the one that preceded it, was as ethically troubled as any the city had seen.

The NOAH scandal continued to roil, and Meffert and St. Pierre were indicted in late 2009. So was Anthony Jones, who had eventually succeeded Meffert as the city’s technology chief.

In his final months, Nagin seemed like a man who couldn’t wait for it to be over. He founded a consulting firm after leaving and hung a shingle in a Poydras Street office tower just a few blocks from the courthouse. He sold himself as a public speaker, but his services were in little demand. He self-published an odd, somewhat paranoid memoir about Katrina. It, too, attracted few takers.

The Nagins eventually put their house on Park Island on the market, selling it in 2011. Since that time, they’ve been living in a much more modest townhome in Frisco, Texas, that they rented and then bought after Katrina. Their subdivision — called Bella Casa, featuring streets named after Tuscan towns, a small park and a pool — couldn’t be much more anonymous.

The Nagins, it seems, have embraced the anonymity.

Nagin, who once was a household name across America, who was once on a first-name basis with the likes of CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, is unknown to many of his neighbors, even those who exercise next to him in the subdivision’s gym every day.

On Monday, the last few years of virtual invisibility will end for Nagin as he returns to the city that once adored him and to the spotlight that he once craved.

Before joining The New Orleans Advocate, reporter Gordon Russell chronicled Mayor Ray Nagin’s two terms in office and the City Hall corruption probe for The Times-Picayune.