Deliberations 3 hours Monday, will resume Tuesday
A jury deliberated for about three hours Monday in the corruption case against former Mayor Ray Nagin before a federal judge sent them home for the night, to return Tuesday at 9 a.m.
There is no telling how far the jury of six men and six women had progressed with the evidence presented by federal prosecutors, who accuse Nagin of steering contracts and lending his political muscle to city vendors in exchange for cash, gifts and, in the case of Home Depot, regular work for Nagin’s family granite business.
The jury did not ask any questions of U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan related to the case before knocking off just before 5 p.m.
Deliberations started about 1:30 p.m. over the charges contained in a 21-count indictment that includes a broad conspiracy count against Nagin involving nearly five dozen alleged “overt acts.”
Those acts date from June 2004, during Nagin’s first term, when he signed an executive order that freed city technology czar Greg Meffert to issue “no-bid” contracts to various vendors without any kind of competitive process. Among them was Mark St. Pierre, the contractor who was sentenced in 2011 to more than 17 years in prison for paying bribes and kickbacks to Meffert and another City Hall tech chief, Anthony Jones.
Prosecutors claim Nagin knew full well that St. Pierre was bankrolling his family vacations to Hawaii and Jamaica, as well as lawn work for Nagin and cellphones for family members. On the witness stand, Nagin insisted he thought the trips came from Meffert. He also said he barely knew St. Pierre, who had helped organize a major Chicago fundraiser for Nagin.
The last overt count involves monthly wire transfers to Nagin after he left office in 2010, totaling $112,250. The alleged kickbacks, ostensibly for consulting work, came from city contractor and developer Frank Fradella, whose relationship with Nagin and alleged payoffs of cash and granite have played a central role in the trial.
Prosecutors used their closing arguments Monday to guide the jury through a damning tour of the evidence presented over more than a week in federal court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Pickens described a mayor eager to tap needy city contractors to keep the granite business, Stone Age LLC, from dripping in red ink. The message: Nagin didn’t just succumb to the temptation of bribes. He courted them with zeal, squeezing contractors for money when he knew they most needed his help.
“It’s pretty clear you have a corrupt public official on the take, running around making decisions for the city of New Orleans with contractors paying him off,” Pickens told the jury.
Pickens homed in on contractors Rodney Williams and Frank Fradella, flashing numerous documents and emails on a courtroom screen to show that Nagin hit them up — and got badly needed cash infusions into Stone Age — just when his stroke at City Hall mattered most.
What Williams needed was his firm to be included in pools of contractors eligible to do certain no-bid post-Katrina work for the city. According to prosecutors, Nagin made the decision to get Williams’ company, Three Fold Consultants, on the lists and signed off on contract work that totaled some $2.6 million over several years.
After Williams and his associates forked over three $20,000 checks to Stone Age, Three Fold “went from a nobody to a player,” Pickens said. The money from Three Fold was fashioned as an investment in Stone Age, which was run by Nagin’s sons, Jeremy and Jarin, who have not been charged. Williams testified the investment part was a sham, with the ownership documents naming a shell company set up after the payoff had been made.
“Now remember why he had to ask Rodney Williams for the money. He’s tapped out,” Pickens said of Nagin, recalling Williams’ earlier testimony of a conversation with Nagin. “Guess who’s tapped out? Guess who controls the (Stone Age) bank account? This isn’t an investment. Who invests in an empty bank account? This is an investment in Ray Nagin and not Stone Age. These guys made an investment in the mayor and hit paydirt.”
For Fradella, paydirt came not just in ongoing city contracting work, Pickens argued, but in Nagin’s endorsements of Fradella before major bankers who later extended the credit line for Fradella’s company, Home Solutions of America, keeping his operation running and the firm’s public stock price up.
In both major alleged payoffs to Stone Age — $60,000 from Williams and his two associates, and $50,000 from Fradella — bank records show the granite firm with a negative balance at the time the cash infusions landed.
“Every time a contractor critically needed something from Ray Nagin, he would seize on that opportunity and get something in return,” Pickens said.
Nagin had poured more than a half-million dollars of his own into Stone Age, and prosecutors said that when all was said and done, that’s about what he got in various payoffs and other illegal benefits, including taxpayer-funded meals at tony restaurants. Included in the government’s tally of ill-gotten gains was about $170,000 in work Stone Age received from Home Depot, money the government said was tainted because Nagin pressured the retailer to take on Stone Age as a vendor even as Home Depot was negotiating with the city over a new Central City store.
In his closing argument, Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, focused largely on the plea deals that Fradella, Williams, Meffert and others swung while agreeing to testify against Nagin. All three are awaiting sentencing. Meffert faces a maximum of eight years in prison, Fradella faces a maximum of seven, and Williams faces up to 37 months.
Jenkins sought to have the jury pit Nagin, one by one, against those who testified to bribing him. He also noted that three major projects Fradella was pushing, including a NASCAR racetrack at the old Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans East and an ambitious redevelopment of the Market Street Power Plant, never materialized.
“How do you corroborate who’s telling the truth?” Jenkins said to the jury. “Who gets the deal? Who gets to go home? He does. Rodney Williams. He’s going to tell you whatever is necessary to get out of his charge.”
Jenkins insisted that federal prosecutors were disingenuous with suggestions that Nagin’s signature on city contracts meant he was picking and choosing the recipients. Some contracts, including Fradella’s, by law had to go to the lowest bidder, while “selection review committees” OK’d work for Three Fold, Jenkins argued. The emails that prosecutors used to suggest that Nagin was hitting up Home Depot for countertop installation work for Stone Age, just as the company was haggling with the city, actually show the company was intent on keeping the two matters separate, Jenkins said.
A key part of Nagin’s defense was that his approval of city contracts was largely perfunctory and was nonstop after Hurricane Katrina.
“How did Three Fold do? They did well. They did well. But they’re trying to get you to think the mayor did all that,” Jenkins said.
The fact that the alleged bribes came in the form of checks and wire transfers weakened the government’s case instead of strengthening it, Jenkins argued.
“If I’m going to take a bribe, you would think it would be in cash, so it’s no trail. Give me cash, and there’s no record of it. But once again, they want to say the money flowed to the mayor, and that’s not true,” Jenkins said. “The agents came in here and said that was a bribe, but (there’s) no other evidence other than the fact they work for the government. No other evidence. None.”
Throughout the trial and in his closing argument, Jenkins derided the government’s lack of surreptitiously recorded evidence, noting, for instance, that prosecutors could have asked Williams to wear a wire. He also asked why, with Fradella pitching $250 million to $500 million in development work for the city, Nagin didn’t shoot for a heftier kickback if he was crooked.
“If I’m gonna be that gangsta, and that involved with bribes, I’m gonna get my fair share,” Jenkins said.
Prosecutor Matt Coman scoffed at Nagin’s insistence on the witness stand that he was merely inquiring into “the process for my sons’ company to be a vendor” when he called Home Depot on behalf of Stone Age. The call came while the company was looking to get cheap land and pushing against a neighborhood group seeking stiff concessions.
Nagin would soon throw his weight against the neighborhood group. A few months later, the mayor complained to a Home Depot official that Stone Age wasn’t getting enough business and cited “broken promises.” Coman dismissed Nagin’s testimony that he was merely a passive investor and “financier” for Stone Age.
“He’s asking for work, asking for a specific, minimum number of jobs. This (email) is not saying, ‘Where’s the application? Where’s the website? How do I fill it out?’ ” Coman said. “He was the front man. He was the business-development guy for Stone Age. Just like Rodney Williams was the business-development guy for Three Fold Consultants. That’s what he did.”
Coman told the jury that Nagin’s alleged antics boiled down to three words: “Bribes, lies and excuses.” Among the latter, he said, was Nagin’s reliance on the aftermath of Katrina when justifying pricey meals on his city credit card and confusion over payment of airplane rides. Nagin testified Friday that he thought some people were just donating frequent flier miles to help him get around.
“He blamed Katrina so many times he had to catch himself: ‘Oh, it must have been Katrina. Whoops, oh, that was before Katrina,’ ” Coman said, citing one exchange Friday over a credit card billing from April 2005.
The jury includes one black member, nine white members and two Asians. Berrigan ordered four alternate jurors, all of them white, to stay around as deliberations started and to return to the courthouse Tuesday morning in case they’re needed.
Members of the jury come from six of the 13 parishes that make up the Eastern District of Louisiana. Four jurors are from St. Tammany Parish, two from Jefferson Parish, two from Orleans Parish, two from Terrebonne Parish and one apiece from St. John the Baptist and Tangipahoa parishes.