In The News › Ray Nagin pleads not guilty to 21 bribery-related charges, avoids comment

Ray Nagin pleads not guilty to 21 bribery-related charges, avoids comment

By Gordon Russell, | The Times-Picayune
February 20, 2013

Making his first public appearance in New Orleans since he was hit with a sweeping federalbribery indictment last month, former MayorRay Nagin appeared at federal courtWednesday afternoon and pleaded not guilty to the 21 charges he faces. Nagin, dressed in a dark suit and accompanied by his lawyer, Robert Jenkins, entered his plea before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan.

On his way into and out of the courthouse, Nagin was surrounded by a scrum of reporters, some of them shouting questions at him. He stoically declined to acknowledge any of the questions; the only comment he made was to tell a fast-backpedaling cameraman that he was about to bang into a stanchion.

Inside the courtroom, Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Coman briefly ran through the litany of charges Nagin faces and explained the maximum penalties for each. Shushan read each count and asked the former mayor to enter a plea; 21 times, Nagin said “Not guilty,” nodding his head at times for emphasis.

Like virtually everyone facing federal white-collar crime charges, Nagin will remain free until his trial. His bond was set at $100,000 with travel limited to Texas and Louisiana. He was also ordered to surrender his passport, and not to have any contact with any possible witnesses in the case. Trial has been set for April 29; the case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.

The proceeding Wednesday, called an arraignment, was basically a formality: Defendants charged with felonies in almost all cases must plead not guilty before magistrates.

But it’s a milestone in the case nonetheless — typically, arraignment marks a white-collar defendant’s real entry into the federal criminal justice system. After entering his plea, Nagin, like anyone else accused of a federal crime, had to be fingerprinted and have his mugshot taken.

Nagin is accused of taking bribes or gifts from three city contractors, two of whom — Frank Fradella and Rodney Williams — have signed plea deals requiring them to testify against Nagin. Williams admitted giving Nagin and his sons a total of $72,500 in cash in exchange for the mayor’s help steering city engineering work to his former firm, Three Fold Consultants. Fradella has copped to paying Nagin a $50,000 bribe while the mayor was still in office, and delivering at least two truckloads of free granite to Stone Age LLC, the Nagin family countertop firm that is at the center of the federal probe.

The third contractor accused of bribing Nagin, former tech vendor Mark St. Pierre, is serving a 17 1/2 year term in federal prison after he was convicted of bribing Greg Meffert, Nagin’s first chief technology officer. St. Pierre — who financed Nagin family trips to Hawaii and Jamaica — is seeking to shave time off his sentence by testifying against the former mayor.

Nagin is also accused of using his influence as mayor to help Home Depot get tax breaks and avoid a pledge to hire people living in the area of its planned Central City store at above-market rates in exchange for an exclusive granite installation contract for Stone Age. The retailer is not charged with a crime.

In addition, Nagin is charged with accepting a trip to New York City that cost $23,500 from a person listed in the indictment as “Businessman A” and described as the owner and operator of a movie theater in eastern New Orleans. The trip came after Nagin helped the businessman get out of delinquent tax and loan payments owed to the city, according to the indictment.

Documents provided by the city in response to a public-records request from | The Times-Picayune show that on May 30, 2006, City Hall granted a waiver of roughly $35,000 in penalties on delinquent taxes owed by the owners of the Grand Theater. The document doesn’t make clear which city official granted the waiver — or who owns the theater complex.

The cinema’s owners have included Liberty Bank president Alden McDonald, movie theater owner George Solomon and First NBC Bank President Ashton Ryan, as well as businessmen Ronnie Burns and Gowri Kailas, according to state records.

Burns said Wednesday that he is not the businessman in question, and that he has “no idea” who it is. None of the other owners have commented on the allegations in the indictment to date.

In late 2005, Solomon said the Grand — which flooded in Katrina and was never profitable beforehand — owed the city more than $5 million. The city itself had borrowed money to make the loan to the company through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 2009, the Nagin administration pushed a “tax increment financing” subsidy to redevelop the entire site. BGR criticized the proposal, characterizing it as benefiting the indebted business owners without sufficient guarantees that the mall would actually be redeveloped or the city’s investment be repaid. Although the arrangement was approved by the City Council, the project never got off the ground.

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