A big part of Ray Nagin’s defense was to cast doubt on the credibility of a parade of former city vendors, federal agents and others who testified against him. But two members of the jury that convicted Nagin on 20 of 21 federal charges against him Wednesday said it was Nagin who couldn’t pass the sniff test on the witness stand.
“I felt like he did not take responsibility for anything and wouldn’t even acknowledge his own signature directly,” said Jennifer Connolly, 32. “It was frustrating to watch.”
Along with the evidence put on by federal prosecutors, Nagin’s evasions, large and small, added up for Connolly, one of two New Orleanians on the jury. Among the evasions, she said, was the former mayor’s rationale for billing family celebrations to taxpayers — namely, that those dinners often were interrupted by people tugging his ear on city matters.
“They showed him the credit cards, the calendar thing, going on a family function, and he’s saying somebody going up to him, talking to him about the city, that should be city business,” Connolly said. “That’s just trying to find any excuse for something. You should have just said, ‘I made a mistake.’ I wanted to believe him to the end. But it just wasn’t possible.”
David Smith, a 53-year-old forklift repairman from Terrebonne Parish, said the jury largely agreed on the bulk of the charges, really getting hung up only on Count 7 in the indictment — a bribery charge related to a $10,000 cash payment arranged by contractor Rodney Williams, who testified that it was a bribe. That was the lone count on which the jury acquitted Nagin.
Nagin denied knowing of the payment, which was made to Nagin’s sons, Jeremy and Jarin, who have not been charged.
“I didn’t see a smoking gun there. I didn’t see any of the evidence pointing to Mr. Nagin. It was a ‘cash’ check. The money went to the sons. Even the federal government could not say, ‘This is where the money went.’ The money just disappeared,” Smith said. “Really it was me that said, ‘Hey, you show me the smoking gun, you show me where Ray Nagin benefitted from this, and I’ll go guilty. Nobody could.”
The jury of six men and six women included four people from St. Tammany Parish, two apiece from Terrebonne, Orleans and Jefferson parishes, and one apiece from St. John the Baptist and Tangipahoa parishes.
The 12 jurors spent the bulk of more than six hours of deliberation on the main conspiracy charge and six bribery counts, the jurors said. The rest — nine wire fraud counts, one for money laundering and four for filing false tax returns — quickly fell into place, since they generally derived from the first charges.
Connolly and Smith both noted Nagin’s breezy demeanor last Thursday, when he took the stand under friendly questioning from his attorney, Robert Jenkins. Nagin appeared far more stern and serious Friday as Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman dug into the heart of the prosecution’s case, firing a fusillade of allegations at him.
To Connolly, Nagin came off as “very kind of smug” that first day. Smith agreed.
“I think he was schooled a little bit, coached a little for the second day. On the first day he was a little arrogant,” Smith said. “That’s not something you really want to display. You want to try to keep your cool.”
Some of Nagin’s responses nagged at Smith, he said. Among them was the former mayor denying his signature on one credit-card billing that prosecutors showed on a courtroom screen. Another came when Nagin stubbornly denied recognizing a picture of a building on Palm Street where his family granite business, Stone Age LLC, was housed. Nagin noted that the sign in the picture showed a different company.
“He’s gonna recognize the building. Somebody changes an address on my house and I pull up and say, ‘This is not my house’? I’m sorry,” Smith said.
“It was more along the lines of character,” he said of his impression from Nagin’s response.
Even the evidence for the smallest alleged kickback in the indictment, Count 3 — a charge that Nagin profited from a $2,250 payoff from Williams — cut away at the former mayor’s credibility.
“That’s a small amount of money, but it’s money that went to his business, and he did benefit from the money. It was from a city vendor,” Smith said. “It’s still character.”
One remark from Jenkins during closing arguments Monday registered with Smith. Aiming to brush off the allegations that Nagin used his city credit card for personal charges, Jenkins said that if they amounted to anything, it was an ethics violation, not a federal crime.
“I found it really strange that his lawyer basically called him dishonest,” Smith said. “Yeah, ethics. You’re saying he did use the credit card but that it’s more on the ethics line. It’s still tax evasion. You benefited from this personally. It was a really strange remark.”
Jenkins’ defense of Nagin didn’t impress the jury, Smith said.
“But then again, he didn’t have a lot to work with,” he said. “He was kind of in a bad position. And everybody’s saying he was crazy to let Mayor Nagin testify. But I don’t think he had a whole lot of choice.”
Connolly echoed that sentiment about Jenkins, whose opening statement and cross-examination of witnesses tended toward brevity.
“He was very hard to follow sometimes. He would jump around from different topic to different topic, saying he was going to get back to something and never did,” she said. “I felt like maybe his heart wasn’t in it, or maybe just he didn’t have a lot to work with.
“There were some counts we never even saw a defense for. I just felt like you want to see what the other side is, and we never saw it.”
Nagin wasn’t the only witness who came across as disingenuous, Connolly said. Frank Fradella, the city contractor and would-be developer who was found to have fed $50,000 and truckloads of granite to Stone Age, was sketchy too, she said.
“I wouldn’t believe anything he said,” Connolly said. “I’m not sure about (former city tech czar Greg) Meffert.”
But it was Nagin on trial, and the former mayor’s believability was of greatest concern to the jury, which took its charge gravely, Connolly said.
“I felt like it was someone’s life on the line. They were serious charges, and he had the family, and we all took it very seriously,” she said.
Nagin’s “smug” demeanor seemed to reflect a disdain for the allegations, she said.
“I thought it was more, he couldn’t believe he was possibly being prosecuted for these things. I still question whether in his mind he thinks he’s innocent. I don’t know.”