Now that the feds are officially investigating former Mayor Ray Nagin, the most popular water cooler conversation starter in town is guessing when he'll be indicted and on what counts. The Times-Picayune outlined three potential problem areas for Nagin, to which I would add a fourth. And that covers just what's in the public domain.
In its first story about the grand jury investigation, the T-P noted that the feds are looking into "three parallel tracks" against Nagin, who campaigned as a crusading reformer in 2002. According to the newspaper, one track involves city tech vendors who provided Nagin with luxury travel and home maintenance; another concerns the Nagin family's countertop business and its exclusive deal with Home Depot; and a third involves suspicions that the countertop biz got free equipment and materials from city vendors.
Add to that list the City Hall email scandal. Computer records of Nagin's schedule and emails disappeared — right after WWL-TV asked for them in a public records request. It is a federal crime to tamper with public computers, and if the tampering is done to conceal a crime, we're talking obstruction of justice.
The stink of corruption was already on Nagin even before he left office. The feds indicted former city tech chief Greg Meffert while Nagin was still mayor. Meffert ultimately pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax fraud. He has yet to be sentenced, but he did testify against his old partner, former City Hall vendor Mark St. Pierre, who got 17-and-a-half years after the feds nailed him on 53 counts of bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud. Another former City Hall tech chief, Anthony Jones, pleaded guilty to bribery and has been cooperating with the feds.
Then there's Aaron Bennett, who admitted to the T-P that he wanted to give "something of value" (I love it when perps quote the criminal statutes) to Nagin to get in on the post-Katrina contracting bonanza. Bennett, who has pleaded guilty to bribery, reportedly lined up Nagin's free trip to the Saints-Bears playoff game in 2007 — and introduced Nagin to Frank Fradella, who faces federal charges in Texas.
If Fradella pleads, he'll cooperate as well. He and Bennett would join Meffert, Jones and possibly others on a growing list of choirboys.
Who might those others be? Lee Zurik reported last week that the feds are looking at former Assistant City Attorney Bob Ellis, who has ties to Bennett's company Benetech. And let's not forget St. Pierre. Considering his long sentence, St. Pierre has lots of reasons to talk — and, under federal law, only a year from his Sept. 1, 2011, sentencing date to get anything in return. Tick, tock.
Speaking of time, when should we expect an indictment — if ever? The feds are nothing if not methodical, especially in high-profile political corruption cases. That suggests we won't see an indictment any time soon. On the other hand, if the statute of limitations is an issue (it won't be if racketeering is alleged), things could come together quickly.
For his part, Nagin has responded to news of the grand jury with his hallmark blend of arrogance and insouciance. He told WWL-TV this was just a rehash of old ethics allegations and that the feds are encouraging witnesses to change their stories. Meffert testified in the St. Pierre trial that Nagin didn't know who paid for their infamous Hawaiian vacation. It will be interesting to see if Meffert sticks to that story — and if St. Pierre, who paid for the trip, has a different version.
Meanwhile, we should all give props to blogger Jason B. Berry of American Zombie (theamericanzombie.blogspot.com), who first unearthed the Meffert/St. Pierre scandal. Berry's reporting was miles ahead of everybody else — including, until recently, the feds.