Mayor’s denial raised suspicions
More than a year before he left office, Mayor Ray Nagin lied to FBI agents during a 2009 interview at the bureau’s Lakefront headquarters, and he lied again when he gave sworn testimony before a federal grand jury in 2012, Special Agent Dan Evans testified Wednesday.
Evans said he initially interviewed Nagin in March 2009 after the FBI began investigating Nagin’s former technology chief, Greg Meffert, and Mark St. Pierre, a Meffert pal and technology contractor who got lucrative no-bid work from the city and allegedly kicked back roughly $860,000 in bribes to Meffert.
While Nagin was not yet a federal target, Evans said, he nonetheless asked the mayor whether Meffert, St. Pierre or anyone else had underwritten the Nagin family’s vacations to Hawaii and Jamaica. Nagin flatly denied it, Evans said.
That was a major red flag to investigators, who had credit-card statements showing that St. Pierre had, in fact, paid for the trips.
“When I’m being told something that is untrue, that makes me believe he has something to conceal,” Evans testified.
Evans was the second-to-last of 26 witnesses called by federal prosecutors in their case against Nagin, which they wrapped up Wednesday afternoon, the fifth day of testimony. Evans’ testimony was perhaps the most significant of the day. While Nagin does not face individual counts of lying to the FBI or to the grand jury, his alleged false statements to the FBI are part of a sweeping conspiracy charge that is the backbone of the 21-count indictment.
Evans said Nagin testified before the grand jury in December 2012, a month before it voted to indict him. In that appearance, according to transcripts excerpted at trial Wednesday, Nagin claimed he didn’t remember cinema owner George Solomon ever asking him for a favor, or Solomon ever doing anything for him.
But earlier testimony showed that Solomon pestered Nagin by email in May 2006 about waiving $55,000 in tax penalties he and his partners in the Grand of the East cinema owed the city. The waiver was granted shortly after Nagin asked Solomon whether he needed him to intervene. The same day, Solomon booked the Nagins on a private jet to New York City at a cost of $23,500.
An email introduced into evidence made clear Nagin knew who his benefactor was. “Thanks a bunch,” he wrote Solomon. “You the man!”
In his grand-jury appearance, Nagin was also asked whether he had approached any high-level Home Depot officials about getting work for the Nagin family’s granite company, Stone Age, as Home Depot sought various concessions from the city.
“Not that I recall,” Nagin testified, according to the transcript. “I remember a meeting where some individuals from that company wanted to meet me. That was it.”
In fact, emails and testimony in the trial showed that Nagin emailed or called two high-ranking executives at Home Depot to seek work for Stone Age, and also met or spoke with lower-level officials on multiple occasions.
Robert Jenkins, Nagin’s lawyer, questioned Evans about the FBI’s policy of not recording its interviews — a frequent tactic of defense attorneys in federal trials. Instead of recording the sessions, FBI agents take notes and fill out what is called a “302” — a summary of a field interview.
Jenkins suggested Evans’ memory or notes might be inaccurate.
“This is accurate, and I think it’s accurate as any tape,” Evans replied.
“You think? So you have some doubts?” Jenkins asked.
“I have no doubts,” Evans replied.
On several other occasions, Jenkins called attention to the lack of wiretap evidence or surveillance tapes showing cash being passed — as well as the lack of any “money in the freezer,” a reference to the cash FBI agents found in former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson’s freezer in August 2005.
Jenkins also tried to downplay the mayor’s role in the sale of some city streets to Home Depot at a deep discount. The streets, which the retailer needed to build its Central City store, were originally appraised at $850,000. Home Depot wanted to pay far less than that, and City Councilwoman Stacy Head, who represented the area, proposed a price of $125,000. Nagin initially resisted; in an email introduced into evidence, he wrote: “I cannot support an arbitrary number to sell a city asset.”
In the end, the council voted 7-0 to sell the streets to Home Depot for $100,000, and the mayor signed the ordinance into law.
Jenkins asked Evans whether he believed the mayor had come up with the lower price and forced it on the council.
“What I’m stating is he’s the mayor and he has to either object to (the price) or sign it,” Evans said.
Prodded further by Jenkins, Evans conceded that the 7-0 vote was a “veto-proof majority,” meaning the council could have overridden the mayor had he declined to sign the ordinance.
Earlier in the day, the jury heard testimony from television reporter Lee Zurik about the Nagin administration’s efforts to conceal meetings between the mayor and certain contractors when Zurik in early 2009 sought a copy of Nagin’s electronic calendar from the previous year.
Zurik, then with WWL-TV and now of WVUE-TV, testified that the administration refused to produce the calendar until he filed a lawsuit against the city and the mayor. The calendar the city then turned over — at the order of Civil District Court Judge Rosemary Ledet — was rife with redactions, meaning passages were blacked out. So Zurik went back to Ledet, who ordered the city to produce an unredacted calendar.
The difference between the two calendars was striking: All of Nagin’s meetings with Frank Fradella, Greg Meffert and Rodney Williams — all of whom are now convicted felons who have testified to bribing Nagin or facilitating bribes to him — were blacked out in the version initially given to Zurik.
The second version showed the meetings.
Zurik’s testimony helped make the prosecution’s case to the jury that Nagin sought to cover his tracks from the media and the public as he got more deeply involved with a handful of crooked businessmen during his second term.
Fradella has pleaded guilty to paying Nagin $162,500 in cash bribes, as well as arranging for truckloads of free granite slabs to be sent to the Nagin family’s countertop business, Stone Age. Fradella’s publicly traded firm, Home Solutions of America, did work for the city, and Fradella met numerous times with the mayor as he tried to land a major contract to redevelop the Market Street power plant or to build a NASCAR racetrack in New Orleans East. Neither deal ever materialized, a fact Jenkins highlighted several times.
At least six meetings between Fradella and Nagin were blacked out on the calendar the Nagin administration initially produced for Zurik.
Jenkins sought to sow doubt about who was responsible for the redactions, noting that it was the City Attorney’s Office, not the mayor himself, who responded to public-records requests. In his opening statement, he said the redactions were made by people in that office “because they didn’t like him (Zurik). To make him do it all over again.”
Williams has admitted paying Nagin $72,500 in bribes, some of which money was contributed by his two partners in Three Fold Consultants, an engineering firm that won a raft of no-bid contracts under the Nagin administration.
The central issue of the case is whether the payments the various city contractors made to Nagin or Stone Age were “bribes,” as prosecutors allege, or “investments” in Stone Age, as Nagin has said. In their questioning, prosecutors routinely call the payments “bribes,” as have most of the government witnesses, leading Jenkins to object repeatedly.
While cross-examining Josephine Beninati, a government financial analyst, Jenkins groused about Beninati’s use of the word “bribe” to characterize the $60,000 that Williams and his partners pooled to give to Stone Age.
“Prior to his plea agreement and prior to him making an agreement with the government, Mr. Williams alleged this was an investment,” Jenkins said. “So what changed as it relates to Mr. Williams? What is it about Mr. Williams that after he pleads guilty you think he’s so truthful?”
Jenkins’ implication was that Williams changed his tune to please prosecutors and get a more lenient sentence.
Beninati countered that Williams initially lied because he was trying to get away with his crime, and confessed when it became clear he had been caught. Moreover, she said, documents back up the version Williams eventually told.
The government’s contention that the payments to Stone Age were bribes rather than investments was bolstered by testimony from Kathleen Allen, general counsel for the state Board of Ethics.
Allen testified that the ethics board opened an investigation into Nagin and Stone Age’s dealings with Home Depot in April 2009. Nagin and his sons provided some documents in response to a subpoena sent in March 2010, and a second one that sought documents showing details of the company’s ownership, Stone Age’s interactions with Home Depot and other information.
The documents Nagin provided the board did not show that BRT Investment Group or the Shannon McGrath 2005 Trust had any ownership in Stone Age.
Those are the entities that made payments, of $60,000 and $50,000, to Stone Age, on behalf of Williams and Fradella, respectively. Both entities were provided documents that purported to grant them small ownership shares in Stone Age.
Four witnesses who were involved in making the payments have testified the documents were bogus, aimed at creating a phony paper trail to back up Nagin’s story.
After Beninati’s turn on the stand, Jenkins called his first witness: Bill Edwards, whose company was bought out by Home Solutions in 2006.
Edwards testified that in early 2007 he had a conversation with Aaron Bennett, then a Home Solutions executive, shortly after Bennett used a Home Solutions plane to fly Nagin, Meffert and others to Chicago and Las Vegas.
Meffert testified Friday that Bennett and the mayor had discussed the possibility of Bennett getting city business, and of Home Solutions helping to grow the Nagins’ granite business. But Edwards testified Wednesday that Bennett groused after the trip that Nagin “wasn’t very engaging” and that he “was reserved, to himself.”