Former Mayor Ray Nagin ended two tense days on the witness stand Friday, insisting he has bribed nobody and struggling to justify expensive birthday, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and wedding anniversary dinners that were charged to the city’s credit card — benefits he paid no taxes on, and that, according to prosecutors, he took advantage of as the city struggled financially after Hurricane Katrina.
“Thank you, Jesus,” Nagin said Friday afternoon when U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan told him he could leave the stand.
Nagin’s trial recessed for the weekend. Closing arguments are set for Monday, after which the trial goes to the jury.
The former mayor, a Democrat who served from 2002-2010, was indicted on 21 counts, including bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns. Prosecutors say he took hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bribes including money, free travel and granite for the business he and his sons owned, Stone Age LLC.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman touched on all aspects of the charges in more than five hours of intense cross-examination. The last minutes were spent going over city credit card receipts and Nagin’s appointment calendar entries to show that various personal dinners were charged to the city.
Nagin said that in at least one instance he reimbursed the city, although Coman said there is no record of such.
“Was this business or personal?” Coman asked about one $276 city-paid dinner that a calendar entry indicated was for Nagin’s son’s birthday.
“I have no idea, sir,” Nagin replied.
Nagin said he could not recall details about years-ago meals but added that some of the charges were probably justified because he was often approached at restaurants by people who wanted to do business with the city.
Another entry showed a city-paid meal involving a landlord for Stone Age.
Nagin said the man was a contractor, likely seeking information about city work. “It wasn’t about Stone Age business,” Nagin said.
Earlier, Coman confronted Nagin with evidence of phone calls, meetings and checks from people who say they bribed him for city work or for his backing on development projects.
Nagin repeatedly downplayed his role in approving city contracts, particularly in the hectic days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, when lucrative city rebuilding work was mounting. He denied any connection between his approval of contracts for Three Fold Consultants and more than $60,000 the company principals gave to Stone Age.
The Three Fold contracts, Nagin said, were recommended through a committee process and were among many awarded after Katrina.
“They hit my desk and I signed them,” Nagin told Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman.
“Isn’t it true, Mr. Nagin, that you traded tax dollars for Stone Age dollars?” Coman asked.
“It’s not true,” Nagin said.
Rodney Williams, a partner in Stone Age, was the government’s lead witness and told jurors he bribed Nagin for work that eventually totaled more than $2 million.
Nagin stuck to his claim that he did not know that a city Internet technology vendor paid for a trip to Jamaica. He said his then-tech chief, Greg Meffert, claimed to have paid for the trip. Meffert has testified that Nagin knew that now-imprisoned businessman Mark St. Pierre paid for the trip.
The former mayor acknowledged taking a $20,000-plus plane trip with his family to New York in 2006. “I don’t have any independent recollection of how we got there,” he said, adding that he learned only after the trip, upon seeing documentation, that it was paid for by a movie theater owner.
“I flew a lot,” Nagin said slowly, emphasizing each word, as Coman pressed the issue. He denied the trip was a payoff for his help in waiving tax penalties for the theater, as his indictment alleges.
Nagin said he acted primarily as a “financier” but not a hands-on manager for his two sons in the foundering Stone Age. He said he recalled little or nothing about June phone calls to another of his accusers, businessman Frank Fradella.
Fradella has testified he bribed Nagin with free granite for Stone Age and with cash, including a $50,000 payment arranged by business associate Michael McGrath. Coman showed Nagin phone records and calendar entries indicating he called Fradella on the same day McGrath sent Fradella an email inquiring about Fradella’s need for $50,000.
Nagin said he didn’t remember what was discussed in the phone calls. He denied asking for anything from Fradella that day or any other.
At various points in the cross-examination, Nagin said Coman was leaping to conclusions.
“This is tough for me to sit here and listen to all these false statements, sir,” Nagin said after one testy exchange with Coman.
Testimony began Jan. 30. Nagin took the stand Thursday to counter evidence from more than two dozen witnesses, including five who said they were involved in bribing him.
Nagin insisted that Williams and Fradella legitimately invested in Stone Age. He brushed off suggestions that the payments conflicted with his stated policy, evidenced in earlier defense testimony and in emails, that city officials were not to take money from or do business with contractors.
“That’s what you told several people in your administration. Is that correct?” Coman asked.\
“That’s pretty well the way we did business,” Nagin said.