Nagin lawyer makes last ditch effort to save mayor from corruption charges

James Plummer Contributor
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NEW ORLEANS – Justice Department prosecutors and defense attorneys put on closing arguments Monday morning in the federal corruption trial of former Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Assistant U.S. attorneys mocked Nagin’s forgetfulness and finger-pointing. Defense attorney Richard Jenkins slammed prosecutors as misleading and their witnesses as unreliable criminals.

Prosecutor Richard Pickens led off the morning listing the benefits Nagin is accused of raking in as part of various bribery schemes, outlined in the conspiracy indictment, the first of 21 counts against him:

  • Family vacations to Jamaica and Hawaii
  • Cell phones
  • Jet travel to Chicago, Las Vegas, and New York.
  • Cash infusions totaling $122,500 into his family granite company, Stone Age LLC.
  • Granite for Stone Age, estimated worth $50,000

Pickens recounted city contractor Rodney Williams’ — who has pled guilty — testimony that Nagin told him he was “tapped out” of Stone Age funds and said Williams and Nagin “dressed up” a bribe as an investment in the company. City vendor and would-be developer Frank Fradella also put money — and granite — into Stone Age, but Pickens said “the only investment being made is an investment in Ray Nagin as the mayor of New Orleans.”

Pickens sketched out several of Nagin’s activities in office, characterizing them as “official acts” in furtherance of the conspiracy to deprive New Orleanians of his honest services. Among these: meeting with Fradella and potential investors in Fradella’s redevelopment ideas; promising to “weigh in” on a Fradella contract bid; issuing an executive order making it easier for IT contracts to skip a formal bidding process; and opposing a “community benefits agreement” as a condition of allowing Home Depot to build a superstore downtown.

Turning to money-laundering charges, Pickens accused Nagin of “flushing dirty money through the banking system.”

The prosecutor highlighted an email thanking movie theater owner Geroge Solomon for a jet flight to New York: “Thanks a bunch. You the man!” Solomon had a city tax penalty forgiven almost immediately after the flight, which Nagin claims to have forgot who paid for.

Pickens also pointed out that Nagin had claimed in earlier investigations not to know Mark St. Pierre, the IT contractor who chaired a Nagin fundraiser and paid for two tropical vacations.

Pickens asked why Nagin and city attorneys attempted to conceal corporate documents and personal calendars from the state ethics board and the media.

He concluded saying, ”Take a look at the big picture… He defrauded the citizens of New Orleans of the right to receive the services of an honest politician.”

Jenkins opened his case for the defense by accusing the prosecutors of being misleading and “trying to win at all costs.” With billions of Katrina dollars at stake, “If I’m gonna be gangster and take bribes,” it doesn’t make sense to only take $50,000, he said.

Jenkins got some laughs from the audience when he pointed out that the prosecution argued that Nagin would know Fradella was a crook because the local newspaper reported on Fradella’s SEC troubles: “They can’t even put out a newspaper seven days!” And later: “The fact is most people don’t read that newspaper. I know I don’t.”

Saying Fradella was promising to bring billions of dollars to a devastated city, Jenkins said, “You’d try to impeach him” if Nagin turned down those projects. Prosecutors “are not being genuine” when they say it was untoward to meet about the projects, Jenkins said, which “didn’t go anywhere.”

Fradella’s contract to refurbish sidewalks in the French Quarter “was a public bid. Period,” Jenkins went on. “They can show all the pie charts they want, it means nothing.” On Fradella’s plea: “He got a sweet deal. To have that case moved from Dallas to here was quite interesting. It just doesn’t happen.” Fradella’s partner, mortgage-fraudster Michael McGrath, testified in a prison jumpsuit and handcuffs looking for a “rule 35” sentence reduction, said Jenkins.

Turning to Nagin’s IT chief Greg Meffert, Jenkins said that Meffert had sworn under oath four times that Nagin had not been a part of Meffert’s bribery scheme. “But once he gets his deal,” Jenkins noted, “the day they let his wife go, he says ‘Ray Nagin knew.’”

On the alleged scheme to shake down Home Depot on behalf of his granite business, Jenkins said, “They’re trying to put one over on you.” The big-box store did “due diligence” in determining they could do business with Stone Age. It was Nagin who wanted to charge Home Depot $850,000 for four city blocks, and the city council who pushed through the sale for only $100,000, Jenkins insisted. “The community benefits agreement was horrible,” and Nagin was right to oppose the activists’ demand for Home Depot to pay a $15 minimum wage and create slush funds for local non-profits, Jenkins said.

Running out of time, Jenkins attempted a brief but very confusing defense of the plane ride to New York financed by Solomon.

Surprisingly, Jenkins seemed to concede that some of Nagin’s charges on the city credit card were improper but “that may be a state ethics thing,” rather than part of a federal bribery case.

Prosecutor Matthew Coman, on rebuttal, mocked Nagin’s defense: “Basically everyone in the world came to this trial to commit perjury against him.” Coman downplayed plea agreements granted to witnesses, and pointed out Nagin on the stand had attributed “post-Katrina” confusion to credit-card charges made months before the levees broke.

Dismissing Nagin’s “lies and excuses,” Coman held his hand over his eyes and said that Nagin “would have you believe that he literally blindfolded himself for eight years and signed papers not knowing what they were.”

Nagin, wearing a lapel pin sporting an American flag and Christian cross, shook his head in disbelief as the judge read the charges to the jury one final time.

As the jury left to deliberate, four alternates stayed behind, finally revealing the ultimate composition of the jury drawn from throughout Southeast Louisiana. There will be nine whites, two Asians, and one black female determining the fate of the former mayor of this — as he put it — “chocolate city.”