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Ray Nagin faces trial to decide his fate on federal corruption charges

By Juliet Linderman and Richard Rainey | The Times-Picayune

January 25, 2014

Shortly after taking the oath as mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin — a fresh-faced former cable executive eager to make his mark on a city widely seen as a hotbed for political corruption — did something unusual. He orchestrated a massive raid one July morning in 2002 that led to more than 70 arrests, including members of the Taxicab Bureau, the Utilities Department, dozens of cab drivers and even a distant relative of Nagin.

While most charges were later dropped for lack of evidence, the raid sent a clear message: Nagin had positioned himself as an agent of change.

“Nobody is immune,” Nagin proudly told reporters that day. “This is a battle for the soul of New Orleans.”

Ten years later, Nagin stands accused of participating in the very cronyism he had vowed to combat. He is the first New Orleans mayor to face federal charges. And on Monday, he will be the first to stand trial, barring any last-minute plea deal.

Federal prosecutors charged Nagin in January 2013 with 21 counts of bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy, stemming from misdeeds they say go back to 2004. He could get more than 20 years in prison if prosecutors can prove he broke the law for a meager bounty of $300,000, a truckload or two of granite, a ride in a limousine and a few trips on a private jet.

“This is a big disappointment,” said Rob Couhig, an attorney and businessman who ran against Nagin in the 2006 primary but later advised him during the first 100 days of his second term. “When you have a mayor who ends up being indicted, it’s embarrassing for the city.”


When Karen Carvin picked up the phone over Thanksgiving weekend in 2001, Brenda Hatfield was on the other end of the line. Hatfield worked at Cox Communications and knew Carvin’s father, Jim, a storied operative in New Orleans’ political scene.

Hatfield asked Karen Carvin if she’d heard of Ray Nagin.

“I said, “Who’s he?” Carvin recalled in an interview last year. “Never heard of him.”

“He’s the cable guy,” Hatfield said.

But after several conversations, the Carvins agreed to take on the risk of running the mayoral campaign of a political unknown.

It would be an uphill battle. Richard Pennington, a former police chief heralded for tackling the city’s skyrocketing crime rate in the 1990s, was leading the pack. When Nagin held his first fundraiser that December on the top floor of a luxury hotel downtown, 20 people showed up – almost all his own campaign workers.

But Nagin had appeal, and the unusual ability to unify disparate groups, including white voters, against the city’s traditional powerbrokers. He dismissed the black political organizations whose chosen candidates consistently carried the city’s highest posts. And when he won an unlikely endorsement from The Times-Picayune, Carvin recalled his campaign’s fundraising efforts taking off.

“It’s like the money faucet turned on,” Carvin said.

Nagin would force a runoff and ultimately win, but concern among some supporters began to mount even before he took the oath of office.

“Nagin is someone who didn’t come out of the same political circles as his predecessors, but his career as a mid-level cable executive had put him into a political mix well beforehand,” said Michael Mizell-Nelson, an associate professor of history at the University of New Orleans. “There’s always a need to see these people as reform agents, but we don’t always really investigate what that means.”


During the race, the Bureau of Governmental Research asked candidates to sign a pledge to change the way contracts for professional services – lawyers, architects, consultants, technology officers and the like – were awarded. Under previous administrations, the mayor had sole discretion over such choices. The watchdog group, however, felt those decisions were better left to a panel of experts.

Nagin signed the pledge. But weeks later, he began to backtrack. While he supported the expert panel, he planned to keep the last word on those contracts squarely in the mayor’s office.

Janet Howard, BGR’s executive director, immediately accused Nagin of reneging on his promise. But Nagin rebuffed her, maintaining that he’d made his conditions clear before signing the pledge. He said he wanted “to go even further in changing the way city government does business when procuring professional services.”

In the end, Nagin failed to overhaul the system. Nagin approved an executive order in 2004 that gave then-Chief Technology Officer Greg Meffert the power to award contracts without requiring firms to participate in any bidding process at all. That decision would become fodder for the federal case that would be built later.

“What we were pushing for was a system that would take politics out of contracting,” Howard said. “There was an expectation of significant reform that never materialized, and that was very disappointing. Nagin was someone who came in on a promise to reform professional services contracting, and it turned out to be a very, very troubled area.”

As Nagin’s first term marched on, he remained relatively popular, though some of his most ambitious plans for development in the city – selling Louis Armstrong International Airport to private investors, taking over the city’s public schools, establishing a new civic complex and creating a downtown casino district – went nowhere.

During the summer of 2005,more than half of New Orleans’ residents supported the Nagin administration, said Xavier University pollster Silas Lee.

Then, Hurricane Katrina hit.


In the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the levees failed and the city flooded, Nagin became a household name in a country captivated by footage of chaos, unrest and floating bodies.

“This is a national disaster,” Nagin said on Sept. 2, 2005. “Get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses moving to New Orleans.”

He would weather accusations of ineptness; stand accused of failing to lead a desperate city. But as the floodwaters receded, Nagin decided to run for a second term. On Jan. 17, 2006, Nagin, who is black, gave a speech that would produce his most recognizable sound byte, which was aimed at black residents, many of them poor, who had evacuated after the storm and had not yet returned home.

“We ask black people: it’s time. It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans,” Nagin said. “And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be.”

The backlash from his controversial address prompted Nagin to apologize. It also represented a clear departure from his previous campaign strategy.

“When he came into office, he had support of large swaths of white and black voters,” said Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. “But after his chocolate city comments, he became more racially divisive.”

Nagin drew a large pool of challengers, but he made the runoff against then Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

Nagin earned 52 percent of the vote to Landrieu’s 48 percent.

“There are very few second chances in life,” Nagin said at the time. “And we in the city of New Orleans, and all of southern Louisiana, have an opportunity to put away the twin cousins of race and poverty and replace them with the siblings of opportunity and responsibility so that all of us together can share the sacrifices for realizing the common good. That is what we have been missing.”

Despite Nagin’s promise of unity and resilience, the sluggish recovery from the storm fomented frustration with the mayor.

“Hurricane Katrina was the pinnacle of Nagin’s local, regional and national profile, and it was all downhill from there, with the perceived incompetence in his ability to reconstruct the city,” Ciolino said. “When he came in, he was perceived as a businessman who would put politics aside and do things in the city’s best interest, with his experience running a multi-million dollar company. But by the end of his second term, he was seen not as a racial unifier, or a competent manager.”

And as Nagin ran a post-Katrina New Orleans, he began to attract the attention of federal investigators.

Home Depot in 2007 became the first big-box store to express interest in putting down roots in New Orleans after the storm. But a community benefits agreement requiring the retailer to hire neighborhood residents at above-market rates was holding up construction. Nagin helped Home Depot dispose of the community benefits agreement, in what prosecutors describe as a quid pro quo for his family’s granite business.

Years earlier, in 2005, Nagin and his two sons, Jeremy and Jarin, had formed Stone Age LLC, a granite countertop business in which Nagin held a 40 percent stake.

It came out later that at the same time Nagin was dealing with the proposed community benefits agreement, he was soliciting a contract to provide granite to Home Depot. Stone Age ultimately won the contract, which made the Nagins as the exclusive granite top installers for four Home Depot stores in the city.

Stone Age ceased operations in January 2011. In 2013, the Nagins founded a new company, Basic Natural Stone, in Frisco, Texas, where the Nagin family now resides.

It is unclear what role Nagin’s sons could play in the upcoming trial, but the two men had appeared before the grand jury investigating their father. Their attorney confirmed at the time that the men had turned over records and were cooperating with investigators.

Jeremy and Jarin were not identified as suspects, the attorney said at the time, and they were never charged with a crime.

The federal probe into the former mayor and his business dealings began to produce indictments in 2009. Since then, four of the five defendants ensnared in the investigation have taken plea deals.

Meffert pleaded guilty in 2010 to federal charges for awarding contracts worth millions of dollars to businessman Mark St. Pierre’s company, Imagine Software, in exchange for $860,000 in kickbacks and free travel – including a vacation to Hawaii he took with the Nagin family. Afterward, prosecutors dropped the charges against his wife, Linda.

St. Pierre took his chance at trial. He was convicted in May of 2011 of bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud, and sentenced to more than 17 years in prison.

Aaron Bennett, owner of Benetech and Associated Contractors LLC, was indicted on bribery charges and confessed to bribing former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jeff Hingle, but he also had ties to Nagin.

Bennett in January 2007 chartered a private jet and brought Nagin, Meffert and St. Pierre to Chicago for a Saints-Bears NFC Title game. Afterward, they flew to Las Vegas, where Bennett introduced Nagin to Frank Fradella, owner of Home Solutions of America – a company with connections to Home Depot. Upon return, Bennett was given a city contract to oversee St. Pierre’s projects.

Fradella pleaded guilty in June 2012 to securities fraud and conspiracy to bribe an official known only in the court documents as “Public Official A,” but who was later identified as Nagin himself. The court documents spelled out a series of bribes prosecutors say Fradella paid to Nagin, including two truckloads of granite delivered to Nagin’s house, $50,000 and monthly wire transfers of $12,500, totaling $112,250.

In exchange, according to federal prosecutors, Nagin issued Home Solutions of America a $3 million construction contract for work on the airport, and a subsequent $1 million deal for additional services.
A few months later, Rodney Williams, owner of Three Fold Consultants LLC, pleaded guilty to paying Nagin $72,000 in installments. Nagin, in turn, awarded 22 no-bid city contracts worth roughly $3 million to Williams’ firm.


On Monday, almost exactly one year after he was indicted, Nagin is set to stand trial in the New Orleans federal courthouse.

Criminal defense attorney Robert Jenkins has revealed little about his defense strategy.

Speculation has run rampant about the possibility of a plea deal that would avoid a highly publicized trial. But by week’s end, potential jurors were set to descend upon the courthouse.

Jenkins issued 15 subpoenas for witnesses who could be called to the former mayor’s defense. Their names have not been made public.

Prosecutors’ witness list is more predictable with the businessmen who took plea deals expected to take the stand.

Some think Nagin is facing an uphill battle at trial.

“The government doesn’t bring cases unless they’re solid,” Ciolino said. “Nagin has a particularly hard road because this is not an issue of one incident … he’s going to have to convince the jury that these half-dozen co-conspirators are all lying, and at some point just the numbers start to pile up.”

But Gray Sexton, an attorney who spent 40 years as the state ethics administrator, said proving that potentially unethical actions are also criminal can be difficult.

“In a criminal prosecution, you have a higher standard of proof. In ethics, did you accept a gift you shouldn’t have?” Sexton said. “To make that into a criminal conviction you must show that not only did you accept a gift, but that your governmental conduct was undermined by that gift, and that’s a much more difficult task.”

The trial is expected to last two weeks. Jury selection begins Monday in U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan’s courtroom.

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