Friday, October 25, 2013

The final chapter

Posted By and on Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 12:17 AM

click to enlarge Ray Nagin
  • Cheryl Gerber

By CLANCY DuBOS and JOE RASPANTI

Former Mayor Ray Nagin’s federal trial on 21 public corruption charges was postponed again last week — for the third time. The former mayor is now set to stand trial on Jan. 27, 2014. If and when Nagin does go to trial — or if he pleads to a reduced charge — it will be the final chapter of Hurricane Katrina’s political arc.

Guilty or innocent, Nagin’s fate will bring closure to a city that arguably suffered as much after the storm as during it, thanks in large measure to the former mayor’s failure to implement a recovery program with any traction.

Nagin faces six counts of bribery, one count of conspiracy, one count of money laundering, nine counts of wire fraud and four counts of filing false tax returns. All of those are major felonies, which means Nagin faces a lot of jail time, even if he’s convicted on just one or two counts.

Federal prosecutors often pile on charges, sometimes adding one or two “minor” counts. In addition to having evidence of multiple crimes, prosecutors use the threat of lengthy jail time to leverage guilty pleas to lesser crimes with reduced sentences. At the end of the day, a win is a win.

Earlier this week, for example, former St. Tammany Parish Coroner Peter Galvan pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to steal money from the coroner’s office, which carries a maximum sentence of five years. That’s serious jail time, but it’s a lot less than Galvan might have drawn had he gone to trial facing multiple counts of public corruption.

In Nagin’s case, a conviction on all 21 counts would send him to jail for a very long time, possibly longer than the 17-plus years given to Mark St. Pierre, the former City Hall tech vendor who rolled the dice and went to trial on 53 bribery counts rather than accept a plea deal. St. Pierre was convicted on all 53 counts. Now he’s anxious to testify against Nagin, hoping it will get him a reduction in sentence.

If convicted of even one count, all of the other counts against Nagin would still factor into his sentence as “relevant conduct” under the federal sentencing guidelines. The former mayor thus faces a lengthy prison term for any conviction — and the fact that he was a public official at the time of his alleged crimes enhances his potential jail time.

Given the breadth and depth of the feds’ case against Nagin — and notwithstanding the fact that the government’s star witnesses have pleaded guilty to or been convicted of public corruption — many have wondered why Nagin didn’t seek or accept a plea deal. In the days and weeks leading up to his indictment, Nagin attorney Robert Jenkins was negotiating with federal prosecutors.

In fact, on the day of Nagin’s indictment, Jenkins called Spud McConnell’s talk show on WWL radio and said he was “surprised that the indictment came today because we were still talking with the government and in fact we had talked about meeting next week as well.”

In cases this complex, federal prosecutors are usually happy to continue plea negotiations until relatively late in the game, particularly if there’s genuine hope of avoiding a lengthy and expensive trial. Whether conversations with Nagin and Jenkins ever reached that level — or whether Nagin’s hallmark narcissism dashed any prospects for a plea deal — remains unknown.

What is certain is that Nagin’s best chance for a favorable deal ended with the indictment. Talks probably will continue up to his next trial date, but the former mayor lost a lot of leverage once the indictment was handed down.

Nagin now faces a lengthy trial and a parade of highly motivated government witnesses, all eager to confirm the government’s account of him as a crook who turned Katrina’s devastation into an opportunity for self-enrichment. Only this time, he will be watching the parade from a defendant’s chair in federal court instead of the mayor’s lofty perch in front of Gallier Hall.

* * *

Barring a plea deal, Nagin’s trial could last three weeks or more. It is expected to include testimony from a rogue’s gallery of former Nagin friends, political aides, supporters and City Hall vendors — many of whom have already been convicted of crimes related to the charges against Nagin.

The case against him is sweeping in its scope — the government alleges 59 “overt acts” in the indictment — with voluminous documentary evidence as well as a long witness list. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan cited all of those factors in her order granting a delay. At the same time, she has denied motions by defense attorney Jenkins to throw out the case based on prosecutorial misconduct associated with the online commenting scandal at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The indictment paints a picture of Nagin as a venal public official who doled out contracts in exchange for money and personal favors — including family cell phones, free granite for his family’s new countertop business, limousines, and trips to Hawaii, Jamaica, New York, Chicago and Las Vegas.

The fact patterns alleged by the feds include the following:

• Nagin accepted $72,250 in bribes from “recovery” contractor Rodney Williams, whose company, Three Fold Consultants, got more than 20 no-bid “professional services” contracts (some of which were jacked up in value several times) that ran into the millions. The bribes allegedly came in the form of three checks for $20,000, one cash payment of $10,000 to Nagin’s sons, and another $2,250 check. The checks were made out to the Nagin family’s countertop business, Stone Age LLC, ostensibly for an ownership interest in the company — but the feds say the transaction was a sham to hide the bribe.

• Nagin got a $50,000 cash bribe plus $112,500 in “consultant fees” from Frank Fradella, whose company, Home Solutions (via its subsidiaries), got millions in post-Katrina contracts from Nagin. Fradella also arranged for the delivery of “truckloads” of free granite to the Nagin family’s budding countertop business, Stone Age LLC. The feds say Fradella funneled the $50,000 payoff to Nagin through a business associate, former mortgage banker Michael McGrath Jr., who pleaded guilty to selling fraudulent credit union loans in an unrelated case.

• Nagin got free family trips to Hawaii and Jamaica, as well as cell phones for his family, from then-City Hall tech vendor Mark St. Pierre. In exchange, the feds say, Nagin signed an executive order excluding technology contracts from the public bid law and gave St. Pierre’s company $7 million in such contracts.

• Nagin got a free trip to New York City on a private jet, plus limo rides around The Big Apple, from “Businessman A,” whom The Times-Picayune identified as theater owner George Solomon, in exchange for help resolving unspecified but delinquent tax and loan payments to the city. The indictment alleges that payment for the trip, which allegedly cost $23,500, was routed through a third party.

• Nagin got Home Depot to give his family’s nascent counter-top company, Stone Age LLC, a “coveted” contract to be the exclusive installer for four Home Depot stores in metro New Orleans — after using his official authority to kill a “community benefits agreement” that would have required the big-box retailer to hire residents from the Central City area (site of Home Depot’s new store) and pay them above-market wages.

• Nagin failed to report income he received from bribes he got in 2005 through 2008.

• Nagin filed two false public records and released misleading public records. According to the feds, he filed at least two affidavits with the state Board of Ethics that failed to disclose all persons with ownership interests in Stone Age LLC — and he failed to disclose the company’s dealings with Williams and Fradella. Nagin also released an incomplete version of his public calendar in response to media public records requests. The version released by Nagin redacted meetings that he had with Fradella and other alleged co-conspirators.

Those alleged facts are spread across the 25-page indictment of Nagin and, according to the feds, support the 21 felony counts against him. If even a few of those facts are proved at trial, the Nagin political narrative will end on a vastly different note than it began.

* * *

Welcomed as a conquering hero — a “businessman” and political outsider — when he took office in 2002, Nagin glided through his first term largely unscathed, although there were hints of what would come to be the hallmarks of his second term: incompetence and stagnation. It wasn’t until his second and final term that a picture emerged of Nagin as a crook. By the time the feds formally charged him with corruption this past January, his imminent indictment was the worst-kept secret in town.

Nagin’s indictment was the latest — and possibly the last — of a number of high-profile political corruption cases brought by the feds after Katrina, though not all of those cases related to the storm.

Among the others were former Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard; former Congressman Bill Jefferson (whose home and office were raided just weeks before Katrina); former New Orleans City Council members Oliver Thomas, Jon Johnson and Renee Gill Pratt; former St. John the Baptist Parish President Bill Hubbard; former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle; former New Orleans Assessor Betty Jefferson and her brother Mose Jefferson — to name just the biggest fish. All were nailed for some form of public corruption, and their convictions signaled a new aggressiveness among federal prosecutors, which mirrored voters’ newfound intolerance for political shenanigans.

In addition to politicians who went to jail for corruption, those who failed to perform well during Katrina also left the stage in ignominy. Former President George W. Bush will forever be remembered for his infamous “flyover” and for the long-delayed federal response in the fateful days after the storm. Then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco, whose public performance during the storm was seen as weak-kneed, opted not to seek a second term. And New Orleans’ then-District Attorney Eddie Jordan, whose incompetence surpassed even that of Nagin, agreed to resign under pressure from business and civic leaders — and Nagin — in 2007.

Nagin, it seemed, was the only political leader who got a second chance after Katrina —mainly because he played the race card, starting with his “Chocolate City” speech on Martin Luther King Day in 2006. He won re-election in May of that year over then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, but his second term was marked by incompetence, corruption and Nagin’s personal detachment from the day-to-day work of managing the city and its recovery.

Now the former mayor is back in the spotlight, though he is no longer the rock star that he was during and shortly after Katrina. According to the feds, those months of disengagement after Katrina were spent by Nagin trying to set himself and his family up for his time after public life.

* * *

It’s difficult to assess a defendant’s best legal strategy, but in Nagin’s case one obvious tack at trial will be an attempt to discredit the government’s star witnesses. Virtually all of them have been convicted of federal crimes, most of them related to Nagin’s case.

Now they have lined up to testify against Nagin in hopes of getting light sentences — or reducing their current sentences. They include:

• Gregory Meffert, the former self-proclaimed “deputy mayor” and the city’s audacious technology chief under Nagin. Meffert used St. Pierre’s credit card to pay for Nagin’s Hawaii and Jamaica vacations. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to taking $860,000 in kickbacks from St. Pierre. He awaits sentencing.

• Mark St. Pierre, a friend and former business partner of Meffert, who was convicted on 53 counts of bribery and corruption and sentenced to more than 17 years in federal prison. He no doubt will ask to have that sentence reduced in exchange for his testimony against Nagin.

• Frank Fradella, owner of the now-defunct Home Solutions of America, who pleaded guilty last year to sending the free truckloads of granite to Nagin’s countertop company, funneling $50,000 in bribe money to Nagin in 2008, and paying Nagin thousands of dollars a month in consulting fees in 2010 and 2011. He awaits sentencing.

• Michael McGrath Jr., a former mortgage banking executive, who is currently serving 14 years in federal prison for selling fraudulent credit union loans. McGrath served as chairman of the board of Fradella’s Home Solutions of America and allegedly used one of his own companies to funnel Fradella’s $50,000 bribe to Nagin.

• Rodney Williams, whose company, Three Fold Consultants, got millions in no-bid contracts from Nagin. Williams pleaded guilty to paying more than $72,000 in bribes to the former mayor. He awaits sentencing.

• Anthony Jones, who was hired by Meffert to work in the city’s technology office, was suspended from that office for lying about his resumé. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to taking $20,000 in bribes from St. Pierre and later testified against St. Pierre. He awaits sentencing.

• Aaron Bennett, whose company, Benetech, got post-Katrina contracts from Nagin before landing even bigger contracts in St. Bernard and Plaquemines. Bennett pleaded guilty in 2011 to bribing Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Jiff Hingle. He sold his company to Fradella and arranged for Nagin’s trips to Chicago and Las Vegas, where Nagin allegedly met Fradella. He awaits sentencing but recently had his bond revoked and was jailed for going to casinos in violation of his bond conditions.

* * *

If Nagin declines a plea deal, his trial will undoubtedly resurrect painful memories of the dark days after Katrina. According to the feds, while most of Nagin’s constituents mourned the loss of neighbors and loved ones and struggled just to return home to a moldy city, the mayor led the good life and set out to line his pockets.

If the rest of America long ago tired of Katrina Fatigue, New Orleanians got a double dose: Katrina Fatigue and Nagin Fatigue. By the end of his tenure in May 2010, Nagin was so unpopular that bumper stickers counted the days ’til the end of his term.

Evidence of Nagin’s unpopularity is not just anecdotal. The New Orleans Mayoral Approval poll, conducted annually by UNO political scientist Dr. Ed Chervenak, shows Nagin with the lowest approval ratings among New Orleans’s recent mayors. In his last three years as mayor, Nagin’s average approval rating was a dismal 29 percent; his lowest approval rating — 24 percent — came in his final year in office. That’s a precipitous fall from the 80 percent approval rating Nagin had in 2003, his first full year in office.

“Nagin started his tenure as mayor with lots of promise as a reformer, but ended it as one of the most unpopular and reviled elected officials in the country,” says Chervenak. “By the end of 2009, New Orleanians just wanted him to go away.”

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