Ray Nagin takes the stand during his corruption trial

James Plummer Contributor
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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!”

Coman pressed on the Williams matter, asking if Williams lied in his testimony that Nagin hit him up for money for Stone Age. Nagin replied, “He lied about a couple of things.” Coman also confronted Nagin with testimony by Williams and his partners that they had bribed the mayor with money for Stone Age, which Nagin also denied.

Coman pressed in physically as well, raising his voice and crowding Nagin’s personal space as he presented documents regarding Williams’ city contracts. Nagin’s defense attorney Robert Jenkins objected, but Nagin himself overruled: “No, I can deal with it. It’s all good. Get closer, man. We’re friends!”

Coman and Nagin sparred over the executive orders issued by the mayor which walked back some of the contracting reforms Nagin had implemented when he first came into office. Coman said the changes made it easier for Nagin to influence the awarding of professional services contracts; Nagin said they were necessary to deal with the glut of contracts being given out during the city’s rebuilding.

Nagin did however seem to concede that Williams’ Three Fold Consultants was among the lesser-qualified engineering firms seeking work with the city. But the mayor argued that since the amount of city construction contracts had exploded during the recovery period – from $25 million a year to $1.5 billion – there were more contracts than they knew what to do with.

All but the most grossly unqualified applicants – about 10% – were kept on the list of acceptable vendors, Nagin said. “I know you’re trying to tie in the $60,000 and God bless you,” he told Coman. But Nagin asserted that the river of cash flowing from Washington is what accounted for Three Fold’s explosive growth in city contracts rather than the $60,000 payment.

Undaunted, Coman hammered Nagin on his communications with Williams, citing phone records and a meeting at Stone Age that had been redacted from Nagin’s personal calendar.

Jurors listened closely to Nagin’s testimony and smiled at some of the barbs the mayor threw Coman’s way as they argued over everything from the semantic meaning of “sole discretion” to the veracity of the prosecution’s witnesses.

Nagin did not comment to The Daily Caller when asked how he thought his testimony had gone so far. Jurors have a chance to hear more from both sides during cross-examination Friday.