If the verdict in former Mayor Ray Nagin’s federal corruption trial brings closure to a sad, sordid chapter of post-Katrina New Orleans, the trial reminded us all of the four dysfunctional years of Nagin’s second term.
The government put on a solid case. Lead prosecutor Matt Coman mapped out a narrative in his opening statement and then produced 26 witnesses and reams of documents to support it. That’s what good lawyers do: they begin by telling a story and then they promise to prove it from the witness stand. If they fail to keep that promise, they lose the case. Coman kept his promise.
When prosecutors put on a strong case, the burden shifts — not legally but practically — to the defense. Instead of presenting an alternate narrative, Nagin’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, simply tried to spin the government’s facts with a handful of witnesses who generally did not hold up well under cross-examination.
Jenkins closed with Nagin himself, who delivered a tour-de-force reprise of his role as the city’s narcissist-in-chief. Some courtroom observers painted him as arrogant; others said he was just trying to be charming. I wasn’t there, but as I followed his testimony online and talked about it with courtroom observers, I think what jurors saw was Nagin trying to be charming — in his hallmark above-it-all sort of way. On his final day on the stand, Nagin also played the victim card. Several times, particularly when Coman produced documents to discount the former mayor’s testimony that he took no bribes, Nagin shrugged and said, “It was post-Katrina.”
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.
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and U.S. Attorney Dana Boente mutually filed a request today to delay a criminal trial against Nagin until October. Nagin, who pleaded not guilty to 21 felony counts in February, was originally set to begin trial at the end of April. However, as today's motion says, it's a large and complex case.
From the joint motion:
"The nature of the present prosecution is complex and involves an extensive amount of electronic and documentary discovery. The current posture of the case makes it unreasonable, taking into account the exercise of due diligence, to expect adequate preparation for pretrial proceedings and trial prior to April 29, 2013."
Read the motion to continue trial: Nagin_Delay.pdf
Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan granted the former mayor a $100,000 bond. Under the terms of the bond, Nagin will have to surrender his passport and limit his travel to Louisiana and Texas, except with permission of the court. He is not allowed to speak to any potential witnesses in the case.
Nagin refused to speak to media after the hearing. Walking away from U.S. District Court with attorney Robert Jenkins, Nagin stared ahead silently as reporters pelted him with questions.
Shushan scheduled a pretrial conference date for April 16. The trial is set to begin on April 29, as of today. Given the complexity of the case, however, that is likely to be pushed back, should it end up going to trial.
Was former Mayor Ray Nagin corruptible from the get-go, or did he lose his way over time in a series of small missteps that escalated into the bribery schemes alleged in the 21-count federal indictment leveled against him? Gambit contributor Stephanie Grace and political editor Clancy DuBos offer different views — but perhaps each is correct, in its own way. Read both viewpoints here:
By His Own Rules
Nearly a dozen action-packed years later, it’s a little hard to put into words just how exhilarating disgraced former mayor Ray Nagin’s breakthrough moment was, and why.
In hindsight, his casually blunt assertion that “Man, I think we need to sell that sucker” — the “sucker” being the city-owned Louis Armstrong International Airport — was a silly, impractical and poorly thought out scheme to raise up to a billion dollars for badly needed infrastructure improvements. Like so many of Nagin’s big, bold ideas, it went nowhere.
But back when Nagin first uttered those words, well into a long, bureaucratic candidate debate leading up to the 2002 mayoral election, the bleary crowd jolted awake. Strange as it now seems, that zinger, as much as anything else, helped launch the little-known cable TV executive’s improbable journey from also-ran to mayor — and now, to accused crook.
It wasn’t just that Nagin was funny and charming; he surely was both. What clicked was that he was different.
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