James Gill: Trial should make good carnival

There we were slavering over the prospect of ex-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s trial, and federal Judge Ginger Berrigan granted a last-minute continuance.

It is now scheduled for late January, when the city will be doubly in the grip of Carnival mood.

A parade may be a great free show, but for entertainment value you can’t beat the cross-examination of a corrupt public official.

Hang on, you say, it’s not fair to label Nagin corrupt before he even goes on trial, when the law grants him a presumption of innocence.

But there is one leading authority who does not presume Nagin is innocent, and that is Nagin himself. Otherwise, he would hardly have been contemplating a guilty plea early this year.

His attorney, Robert Jenkins, professed himself surprised when the indictment was handed up, because he was in the middle of negotiating a deal with the feds.

And the indictment was a doozy, citing 59 criminal acts that gave rise to 21 counts.

Nagin must have some restless nights thinking of Mark St. Pierre, who bribed his way into fat City Hall IT contracts and now is doing 17½ years.

If Nagin, now 57, went to trial and were convicted, there wouldn’t be much spring in his step by the time he got out of the pen. When hizzoner turns out to be a crook, the law will come down extra hard.

St. Pierre certainly will be among those in attendance if Nagin ever does go to trial, and so will a parade of other erstwhile contractors who have pleaded guilty to a role in the great kickback machine that was his administration. They will be falling over each other to rat him out and earn a reduction in their prison time.

While the defense will be keen to point out that they are not motivated by civic duty, the sheer weight of conspirator testimony will no doubt prove persuasive, especially as it will be substantiated with reams of other evidence.

Indeed, Berrigan cited “the considerable number of documents the government intends to offer” among her reasons for delaying the trial so Jenkins could prepare adequately.

The question on everyone’s lips therefore is whether Nagin will instead use the time to cut his losses and negotiate a deal.

Sure, if he pleads guilty to a couple of counts, he still will go to prison but not for as many years as he will face if he rolls the dice and loses.

The risk he runs is a dire one, even if he is not convicted on all counts.

He could beat the rap on all but one or two and still draw a much longer stretch that any plea bargain would stipulate. That’s why prosecutors always will do their best to load up the counts. Juries may be loath to believe the government got everything wrong.

In this case, though, the chances of even a partial acquittal do not look good. The indictment lists a slew of official favors done and traces payments to Nagin from the beneficiaries. His M.O. appears to have been no more discreet than his various public pronouncements after Katrina.

To say a mayor took truckloads of bribes would anywhere else be a figure of speech, but not in New Orleans. In addition to cash payments, City Hall contractor Frank Fradella had consignments of granite blocks delivered to Nagin on numerous occasions.

This was so far from the subtlest sweetener ever devised that you’d have to figure granite blocks were a good match for the Nagin noggin. They went to a countertop company he had set up with his sons, which duly sank like a stone.

Fradella has pleaded guilty to bribing Nagin for government construction contracts and is ready to testify, along with all the others who say they had Nagin in their pockets.

Sure, it would be real pig-headed of Nagin to keep fighting a case he appears certain to lose, but that doesn’t rule it out.

The question of why he doesn’t pack it in has been on everyone’s lips for a long time, and he was only four days from trial when Berrigan granted what must surely be the last continuance.

So we live in hope that Nagin will appear in court to face the music. The public deserves some belated benefit from electing him mayor. We’d settle for a few weeks of pre-Lenten diversion.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.