NEW ORLEANS – Former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin took the stand Thursday to defend himself from federal corruption charges. After spending several hours with his defense attorney denying the bribery schemes laid out by prosecutors over several days, fireworks flew as Nagin and U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman engaged in a pointed cross-examination that had yet to end when the trial recessed for the day.
Nagin, a former Cox Cable executive, painted himself as a reformer who came into office in 2002 looking to fix a city that was in shambles even before Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of 80% of the city: “The city was broke. There was two days of cash in the bank. . . I was shocked, they were using 8-track tapes to store data. . . they were using an Israeli phone switch I had never heard of… there was a red Batman-type phone on my desk that never worked for me.”
Nagin testified how he brought in Greg Meffert, who “had been in the dotcom business, he had been very successful and very skilled,” to his administration to help modernize the city. Meffert, who pleaded guilty to taking $860,000 in bribes and kickbacks from city contractor Mark St. Pierre, has testified against Nagin.
Regarding the charge that Nagin had accepted a family trip to Hawaii from St. Pierre in exchange for lucrative contracts, Nagin laid that charge at the feet of his traveling companion Meffert: “No, that was never brought to my attention. If anything, Greg indicated that he was paying for the trip.”
Nagin also discussed another city contractor, Rodney Williams, who prosecutors say bribed Nagin with an allegedly phony $60,000 “investment” in Nagin family firm Stone Age Granite. Nagin said Williams was simply so impressed with his sons’ work installing granite in Williams’ home that he volunteered to become an investor.
During his direct testimony, Nagin was also careful to characterize the $50,000 worth of granite slabs delivered free-of-charge to Stone Age by another convicted city contractor, Frank Fradella, as inventory that was to be “sold on consignment,” rather than a gift.
Asked about Fradella’s business partner Mark McGrath, Nagin joked, “You mean the guy in orange?” — McGrath is serving time in prison on unrelated mortgage fraud charges. The mayor said he attended meetings with McGrath and Fradella regarding the possible redevelopment of abandoned Six Flags and power plant properties in an effort to help New Orleans recover.
The exchanges under cross-examination were even more animated. When prosecutor Coman pointed out that Williams attended the “Mayor’s Mardi Gras Ball,” Nagin replied: “Yes, with 1000 of my closest friends.” When Coman exhibited a poorly-lit picture of Nagin and Williams shaking hands at the ball, Nagin refused to concede an inch, saying he couldn’t tell who it was from the back of his head.
Nagin: “I can’t see who it is, can you?”
Coman: “I can.”
“Oh, you have x-ray vision!”