NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The corruption case against former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the city’s chief executive when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, was in the hands of jurors Monday after prosecutors said they had presented evidence of a “mayor on the take.”
Nagin’s defense lawyer told jurors the case was built on the testimony of witnesses tainted by their own criminal conduct, hoping for lighter sentences from the federal government.
U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan read lengthy instructions to jurors, who then headed to a separate room to have lunch and await the delivery of documents. Deliberations began mid-afternoon.
A 21-count indictment alleges that Nagin sought and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bribes from people doing business with the city. Prosecutors say the bribes were in the form of money, free travel and free slabs of granite for a family business. The alleged corruption spanned his two terms as mayor from 2002-2010, and prosecutors said it flourished as the city handed out lucrative contracts after Katrina-related levee failures led to catastrophic flooding.
“You saw how a mayor on the take operates,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Pickens said in closing arguments, recapping testimony and evidence presented over seven days of testimony that ended Friday.
Behind him on a large white screen flashed pictures of emails, city documents, pages from Nagin’s appointment calendar and newspaper articles — all used to back up testimony from more than two dozen prosecution witnesses, including five who said they were involved in bribing Nagin.
Nagin attorney Robert Jenkins attacked the credibility of key witnesses who entered plea deals with the government, some of whom are awaiting sentencing. In one case, he noted that a former investment banker, Mike McGrath, entered the court to testify in prison garb and handcuffs. McGrath had acknowledged that he could get an existing sentence reduced for an unrelated crime in New Jersey.
“SEC violations, convictions, charged with lying in a federal matter,” Jenkins said, running through a list of the problems faced by one key witness, convicted businessman Frank Fradella. “This is another of their star witnesses.”
Jenkins told jurors they should consider whether a given witness “had an interest or a bias to testify the way the government wanted him to testify.” And he said prosecutors used misleading arguments, glossing over elements of their case that pointed to Nagin’s innocence. He noted an email from Nagin to a Fradella associate seeking to do business with Stone Age LLC, the granite company Nagin and his sons owned.
“My sons will not be able to do business with you guys as long as you go after city business,” Nagin said in the email, which prosecutors have cast as an attempt to avoid suspicion.
The indictment alleges the bribes were in the form of money, free travel that included vacations in Hawaii and Jamaica and free slabs of granite for the foundering family business, Stone Age.
Nagin, a Democrat, testified last week that key witnesses lied and prosecutors misinterpreted the documentary evidence He insisted that he bribed no one.
Throughout the trial, the defense repeatedly made the case that prosecutors overstated Nagin’s authority to approve contracts. Nagin signed off on contracts — some of them awarded to low bidders and some the result of committee recommendations — as a matter of duty, not as a payoff, Jenkins insisted.
The charges against Nagin include one overarching conspiracy count along with six counts of bribery, nine counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering conspiracy and four counts of filing false tax returns.
The charges resulted from a City Hall corruption investigation that had resulted in several convictions or guilty pleas by former Nagin associates by the time trial started, with jury selection, on Jan. 27.
Fradella and contractor Rodney Williams, both awaiting sentencing for their roles in separate bribery schemes alleged in the case, each testified that they bribed Nagin.
Nagin’s former technology chief, Greg Meffert, who also is awaiting sentencing after a plea deal, told jurors he helped another businessman, Mark St. Pierre, bribe Nagin with lavish vacation trips. St. Pierre did not testify. He was convicted in the case in 2011.
Nagin said he did not know his vacation trips to Jamaica and Hawaii were paid for by St. Pierre. He also said he wasn’t told that a family trip to New York was paid for by a movie theater owner who, prosecutors said, received help with a city tax issue after Katrina wiped out the theater.