Ray Nagin trial jury selection under way

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the first day of jury selection in former Mayor Ray Nagin’s federal corruption trial was that so few potential jurors acknowledged having deeply held opinions about the former mayor, who became something of a lightning rod in the months after Hurricane Katrina.

Not one of the 60 prospective jurors screened Monday said they had any “strong feelings” about Nagin that would prevent them from impartially considering the evidence in the case. Just five of the would-be jurors said they had voted in an election in which Nagin’s name was on the ballot. Each of those jurors was summoned up to the bench individually so that U.S. District Judge Helen “Ginger” Berrigan and lawyers from both sides could assess the implications of their statements.

Monday ended without a jury in place, but it appeared likely that the final panel will be drawn from among the 60 people who were interviewed Monday.

In the end, the jury will consist of 12 members plus four alternates. Nagin will be allowed 10 peremptory, or unexplained, jury strikes, while the prosecution team gets six. Jurors may also be dismissed for cause — that is, if one side or the other makes a persuasive argument that a particular juror cannot serve as a fair arbiter in the case.

Court has been canceled for Tuesday because of expected severe weather, and Berrigan indicated the trial would not resume until noon Wednesday — and possibly later, if the bad weather continues. That means the soonest a jury will be empaneled is Wednesday afternoon.

Nagin, who is the first New Orleans mayor ever tried on corruption allegations, arrived at the federal courthouse about 8:15 a.m. Clad in a Navy blue suit, a white dress shirt and a red polka-dot tie, he walked across Lafayette Square with his legal team, led by attorney Robert Jenkins.

He held a bottle of water and wore his trademark grin as microphones were thrust toward his face.

“I can’t say anything,” he responded to a question about the allegations contained in 21-count indictment. “I wish I could.”

Nagin was suffering from what appeared to be a painful limp, which caused his left foot to bend inward as he walked, and which he declined to explain.

“It flares up every now and then,” Nagin said before entering the courthouse. “It’s good.”

He laughed when one reporter asked him to make a Super Bowl prediction.

Jurors for the Eastern District of Louisiana are drawn from a 13-parish region, and the 60 people interviewed Monday appeared to be a representative cross-section of the area. More of them came from Jefferson Parish, the state’s most populous parish, than any other parish, and most were from the metro area, but there were also potential jurors from Washington, Tangipahoa, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. The group appeared to include 41 whites, 15 African-Americans, three Asians and one Hispanic, although jurors were not asked to identify themselves by race or ethnicity.

Nagin’s lawyers and the prosecution team spent about an hour haggling over who was fit to serve after having interviewed the 60 potential jurors in three large panels. Presumably, a number of jurors have been struck as a result of that process, but the strikes were not announced in open court, with the lawyers hovering around the bench as they negotiated.

A few potential jurors mentioned potential conflicts that seemed likely to take them out of the mix, although most said they thought they could serve without bias anyhow.

One prospective juror said he works for the Internal Revenue Service’s criminal investigation division, which puts him in close contact with other federal law enforcement personnel — including at least two people expected to testify as government witnesses in the case.

Another would-be juror said her children played soccer for years on a team with the children of Mark St. Pierre, a former City Hall technology vendor now serving a 17-year prison sentence, and who is a possible witness. The woman, from Jefferson Parish, said the two families had been “pretty tight,” and she feared the relationship would affect her impartiality.

A third prospective juror said he was the pastor of former New Orleans police officer David Warren, who was recently acquitted in federal court in the shooting of Henry Glover days after Katrina. That prospective juror, who lives in St. Tammany Parish, testified as a character witness at Warren’s trial.

Monday’s proceedings also offered the first peek at who will testify in the case, though many of the key witnesses are already well known to the public. Berrigan read the names of all potential witnesses — though not everyone on the list is likely to be called — and asked jurors to raise their hands if they knew anyone.

Many of the names were familiar either because they are accused of bribing Nagin or because they worked at City Hall during his administration. Those in the first group included St. Pierre, engineer Rodney Williams, businessman Frank Fradella and cinema magnate George Solomon. Those in the second group included former Nagin aides Donna Addkison, Penya Moses-Fields, Brenda Hatfield, Arlinda Westbrook, Kenya Smith and Robert Mendoza.

Mendoza, who served as Nagin’s public works director, was in the courthouse Monday morning, having received a subpoena directing him to show up. He said he expects to be asked to offer testimony on how contracts were awarded at City Hall.

One person who may have hoped to be on the witness list, but wasn’t, was businessman Aaron Bennett, who pleaded guilty to bribing former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle and who has said he helped introduce Fradella and Nagin.

Bennett is set to be sentenced Feb. 26, and he was likely hoping a turn on the witness stand in the Nagin case might reduce his possible sentence.

Despite his limp, Nagin seemed in good spirits as he sat at the defense table, occasionally smiling at jurors and chatting with a paralegal at his table. At times, he bopped his head distractedly to the beat of the easy-listening music turned on every time lawyers approached the bench.

Other than his legal team, Nagin was alone Monday, with no family members on hand.

The government plans to focus on five schemes allegedly perpetrated by the two-term mayor before he left office in 2010.

Federal prosecutors Matthew Coman, Richard Pickens and Matthew Chester will tell the jury that Nagin steered lucrative, no-bid work to St. Pierre in exchange for St. Pierre’s underwriting of trips, landscaping and even cellphones for the Nagin family. They will argue that Nagin helped waive delinquent tax and loan payments owed the city by Solomon in exchange for a lavish trip to New York City for Nagin’s family. Solomon was not on the government’s witness list, but he was on the mayor’s list, as were two of his business partners.

Prosecutors also allege that Nagin helped Home Depot avoid concessions to neighbors of a Central City store in exchange for an exclusive granite-installation contract between the retailer and the Nagin family’s countertop business; that he gave favorable treatment to Home Solutions of America, including contracts, in exchange for payments totaling $162,500, two truckloads of free granite and other gifts sponsored by Fradella, HSOA’s chief executive; and that Nagin steered contracts worth millions to the engineering firm Three Fold Consultants in exchange for payments totaling $72,500 from Williams, one of the company’s owners.