NEW ORLEANS – The trial of C. Ray Nagin continued into a fifth day Tuesday as witnesses detailed the former mayor’s relationship with Home Depot.
Several executives testified that Nagin was hitting up the firm for contracts for his family granite business at the same time the retailer was negotiating with the city on the construction of a superstore downtown.
The Home Depot executives testifying provided a change of pace in the government’s case, which on previous days had been dominated by witnesses convicted of various felonies.
In late 2006, as Home Depot sought to open a large store on the edge of Central City not far from the Superdome, there were a couple of sticking points with the city council and the mayor’s office. So-called “community groups” and council allies were seeking to have Home Depot sign an agreement to set a minimum wage of $12.50 for its employees.
Nagin called the Home Depot CEO Frank Blake and offered his assistance quelling those demands. In emails exhibited by the prosecution, Blake and other national executives fretted about the “shakedown artists” and wondered why the mayor was being so proactive in offers to help.
Home Depot’s top lobbyist Kent Knutson told Price in an email, “Knowing how New Orleans operates, the mayor will be certain to plug his family business.”
The other sticking point was the four city blocks that Home Depot needed to buy from the city in order to build their sprawling store. The original draft of the enabling legislation for the store said that the “minimum acceptable bid shall be $850,000” for the streets, a figure based on an appraisal study. Nagin initially stuck by that figure while the City Council was eager to get the project done and was willing to take only $100,000.
Laying out a series of emails, Justice Department prosecutors showed how Nagin only came down to the $100,000 figure after he secured a contract with Home Depot for his family’s firm, Stone Age Granite.
Home Depot executive Cane Womac testified that he was “unimpressed” with the capabilities of Stone Age, but that his boss Dan Paris told him, “it wouldn’t hurt to have the mayor on our side.”
Later in 2007, after the new store had been approved, the Nagins started pressing Home Depot to expand the contract with Stone Age. An internal Home Depot study concluded that such an expansion would be “High Risk” due to Stone Age’s poor credit and performance.
But Womac nonetheless recommended in an email to other executives that, “Given the political nature of this relationship; I think its better to move forward; and expect performance.”
Another Home Depot executive, Patricia Stoddard, testified about that performance – it was poor. Stoddard said that when she first transferred to New Orleans, Womac told her, “Congratulations! You’ll be working with the mayor,” as a team of executives chuckled.
Stoddard explained the Nagins’ granite countertop installations were substandard and Home Depot lost a lot of money hiring other vendors to fix the poor jobs done by Stone Age.
Nagin’s attorney Richard Jenkins forced Stoddard to concede that Mayor Nagin never threatened Home Depot with any retaliation from the city.
But on redirect, Stoddard emphasized that Nagin introduced his emails and “opened his phone calls saying, ‘This is the mayor.’ I felt very intimidated.”
Home Depot terminated the arrangement with Stone Age Granite in 2008 after more than a year of poor services.
Asked during the lunch break how he thought the morning’s testimony went, Jenkins somberly told The Daily Caller, “It went as we expected…. that’s all I can say.”
Meanwhile, in the near-empty courtroom, relaxed prosecutors prepared slides for the afternoon as they joked about the video game “Pole Position,” and laughed over some of Jenkins’ cross-examinations.
The afternoon was dominated by the hours-long testimony of Treasury Special Agent Timothy Moore, who was there to substantiate the government’s several counts of tax fraud filed against Nagin.
Moore explained that the IRS requires bribes to be listed as income, which elicited loud laughter from the audience.
Moore painstakingly detailed his calculations of Nagin’s undeclared income, which he figured totaled $342,072.90 over the years 2005-2008. That figure included alleged bribes of $50,000 , and $60,000 that had been detailed in previous days’ testimony, along with lawn care, phone service, granite inventory, and jet travel.
Moore also figured in the almost $70,000 in checks from Nagin appointee David White to the mayor’s wife Seletha Nagin, and rent-free post-Katrina stays in donated Dallas townhomes; both of which were introduced in testimony earlier Tuesday.
Finally, Moore included several charges Nagin made on a city credit card that Moore determined had nothing to do with city business. The charges included air travel, weekend meals, and shopping expenses at department stores.
The trial resumes Wednesday morning with the defense’s cross-examination of Agent Moore.