Defense rests in Ray Nagin trial after heated argument: ‘You sold your office, didn’t you?’

James Plummer Contributor
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NEW ORLEANS — C. Ray Nagin and assistant U.S. attorney Matthew Coman continued their pointed argument for several hours Friday as testimony concluded in the 21-count corruption trial of the former New Orleans mayor.

Overflowing crowds showed up at the federal courthouse to see the glib Nagin spar with the federal prosecutor.  However, Nagin was more subdued than he was during the previous day’s animated proceedings.

That’s not to say it was boring.

Coman repeatedly tried to trick Nagin into admitting to a crime by prefacing his questions about suspicious meetings and phone calls with statements such as: “Now, on the day you accepted the $50,000 bribe…”

“You’re trying to slip in that I accepted this check while you’re asking a different question,” Nagin replied after one such attempt. “Just be more straightforward with your questions. It would help.”  At another point, Nagin told Coman, “You keep trying to put words in my mouth.  You are a very seasoned attorney — let’s do this right.”  (RELATED: Ray Nagin takes the stand during his corruption trial)

Judge Ginger Barrigan had to admonish both Nagin and Coman on more than one occasion to let the other speak.

Coman hammered Nagin over inconsistencies in documents regarding his role in the family business, Stone Age Granite, that was at the center of many counts in the federal indictment.  Most of the documents listed Nagin as owning about 40 percent of the company, but as state and federal investigations into Nagin’s dealings heated up, one document said that half of that was actually his wife’s interest.  When Coman displayed an IRS filing that listed Nagin as a 60 percent owner, he answered that was the work of his accountants who made “adjustments” for “tax purposes” based on money Nagin had poured into the company that year.

Nagin repeatedly challenged the veracity of other witnesses whose testimony Coman cited to make his case:

Chief technology officer and tropical traveling companion Greg Meffert? “He lied a lot… He was quite a storyteller.”

FBI agent Mike Evans, whom Nagin allegedly lied to, thereby obstructing justice?  “It’s interesting to me that the FBI can interview you and there’s no audio tape or video tape, and he can go back two weeks later and write up what happened.”

Federal prisoner and alleged bribing back-slapper Michael McGrath?  “He lied about a lot of things.”

Perhaps the most remarkable part of Nagin’s repeated appeals to amnesia was when Coman confronted him about a 2006 trip to New York.  The flight on the private jet was paid for by George Solomon, a movie theater owner who successfully sought to have a tax penalty waived by the city.

“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” Nagin said.  “Those were tough times…  I don’t have any recollection of how we got there… My family and I went to New York after the election to wind down… Later, I saw a document that Solomon provided the trip, but I never saw that document before.”

Nagin tried to explain away the trip by saying that several philanthropic businessmen had donated leftover NetJets hours to the mayor for the good of the city’s rebuilding.  But then Coman displayed a payment check from Solomon for $23,520, demonstrating that this was no frequent-flyer trip.

Turning to an alleged Home Depot extortion scheme, Coman displayed a photograph if Nagin and a Home Depot executive at the groundbreaking of a new store.

“That was a good day for the city of New Orleans,” said Nagin.

“And it was a good day for you,” said Coman, pointing out that the mayor had contacted that same executive about having Stone Age work as a granite vendor for the big-box chain.  As Coman and Nagin again went into another argument about how active the mayor was in the granite firm, even the judge seemed to be bored, leaning back and closing her eyes.

Asked by The Daily Caller during the lunch break about the cross-examination, Nagin attorney Robert Jenkins only said, “It is slow and time-consuming.”

Coman finally turned to an excruciating examination of charges made on his city credit card for personal business — charges which the feds characterize as tax-evading, undeclared income.  Nagin said his assistant Patricia Smith must have accidentally charged the wrong card when booking the flights.  Asked about a trip to Cancun, which he had initially paid for but then had reimbursed by the city, he returned to the “tough times” post-Katrina defense.  The former mayor said the city was so broke that he sometimes had to front the cash for city travel on his own card — and Smith must have accidentally had the wrong trips reimbursed when later reconciling the books.

Coman also compared dozens of restaurant receipts to Nagin’s calendar listing of personal meals on those days.

“Let me explain being mayor of New Orleans to you,” Nagin said.  “It was a 24-hour job with no time off… I was high-profile…  Any time we were out at dinner, people would come up to us and ask me various things, city business. Sometimes I would get back to the office and go to Pat and say, ‘Look, this was supposed to be a private dinner but it wound up being something different…’  People would literally sit down at the table with us and order appetizers.”

When Coman asked about a meal at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse with Stone Age’s landlord, Nagin asserted the man must have been asking how to obtain city business for his contracting firm.

“I challenge you to show me one contract!” Coman replied.

“Why don’t you call him to testify if he ever went after city business?”  Nagin shot back.

“I don’t have to call anyone!” Coman answered.

Coman concluded his questioning by listing each of the 21 counts, forcing Nagin to deny each one for one final time.

“You sold your office, didn’t you?” he said to Nagin at the end of his questioning.

Jenkins then spent about five minutes clarifying city contracting procedures, before Judge Berrigan dismissed the former mayor from the stand.

“Thank you, Jesus!” Nagin exclaimed as he climbed out of the witness box.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Monday morning.

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