Looking relaxed and confident, former Mayor Ray Nagin took the stand Thursday morning to defend himself against a sweeping federal indictment that accuses him of selling his office to city vendors who showered cash and gifts on him and got contracts and political favors in return.
The former mayor sought to portray himself as an overworked functionary in the awarding of city contracts, acknowledging that he must sign them in the end but suggesting that he had little or nothing to do with picking winners. He said he spent a lot of time signing contracts, calling it a “tremendous burden,” but concerned himself little with who got work.
Upon taking the stand, Nagin, wearing a navy blue suit, yellow tie and white dress shirt, harked back to his election as a reform candidate in 2002. There was “lots of controversy around contracting” under his predecessor, Marc Morial, Nagin said, claiming that he cleaned up the process by making it more transparent in a 2005 executive order.
“We wanted to make sure it was done fairly...that before it got to my desk there was no politics involved,” he said.
Nagin denied doing anything special for city contractors Mark St. Pierre or Rodney Williams, both convicted felons who have admitted funneling bribes to the former mayor and his family’s granite business, Stone Age.
Nagin said he hardly knew St. Pierre, dimly recalling an introduction at a holiday party, and strongly denied knowing that the businessman was paying for his family’s vacations to Hawaii and Jamaica. The mayor said he thought that his former chief technology officer, Greg Meffert – whom he called “accomplished” and “aggressive” -- was bankrolling those trips.
“There was a trip that was taken to Hawaii around Christmastime, I don’t remember what year,” Nagin recalled. “Greg came to me and said, ‘Look, man, we’re going to Hawaii. We rented a house and if you want to join us, you’re welcome to.’ I said, Fine.’”
When Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, asked whether he knew the tab had actually been picked up by St. Pierre, Nagin said: “I had no idea this was going on.”
In testimony last week, Meffert – who has pleaded guilty to taking $860,000 in bribes from St. Pierre and still awaits sentencing – said he made sure the mayor knew his benefactor was St. Pierre because “I wanted to make sure Mark got credit.”
As to an executive order he signed in 2004 that exempted technology services from normal city bidding rules – which made it easier for St. Pierre’s firm to get no-bid work – Nagin said it was brought to him by then-City Attorney Sherry Landry.
“Sherry Landry came to me and said, ‘This seems to be a good process and we need you to sign it,’ so I signed it,” Nagin said.
Nagin characterized Williams, one of three principals in the engineering firm Three Fold Consultants, as being closer to his two sons than to him.
He said his sons came along on a city economic development trip to Brazil, and so did Williams. The Nagin boys hit it off with Williams, whom Nagin compared to an older brother for them.
“Rodney took them partying in Brazil,” Nagin said. “If you can imagine some guys in their 20s in Brazil, they were quite excited.
“They thought that he was kind of cool and this was a guy they could learn a lot from.”
Williams later hired Stone Age to install countertops in his home, Nagin said.
“This particular job was highlighted for excellence in a national magazine...as a great job that these young guys were doing,” Nagin said. That article, from the trade publication Slippery Rock Gazette, was entered into evidence.
The job was so expertly done that Williams asked if he could invest in the firm, Nagin said, and that’s how Williams and two partners wound up each writing $20,000 checks to Stone Age.
Nagin said the $60,000 was properly recorded on Stone Age’s tax forms as an investment, though he emphasized that “my sons and wife basically handled that side of things.”
The $60,000 “was booked properly on the books of the company, and we turned that over to the tax accountant,” Nagin said. “We talked to them about this investment and how would it affect the ownership.”
Williams and one of his partners, Bassam Mekari, last week described the payments as bribes given in order to get Stone Age more city work. And an exhibit produced by the government showed that the firm’s volume of city work increased more than fivefold after the payments to Stone Age.
Just as he sought to distance himself from the process of awarding contracts, Nagin portrayed himself as a “financier” and a “passive investor” in Stone Age.
Nagin also addressed his mode of communication with his subordinates, which has come up as prosecutors entered his exchanges with Meffert and others into evidence. Typically, instead of emails, he used Blackberry “pin to pin” messages, which the government suggested was to keep the contents hidden from a curious media, and others.
Nagin confirmed that he tended to use Blackberry “pin to pin” messages to communicate with important people. He said he did so because he felt the messages were more secure and encrypted, noting that he communicated with important people including “just about every living president out there” along with dignitaries like Prince Charles.
There was never any intention to keep nefarious deeds hidden, he said.
“I’ve heard a lot throughout this trial that don’t make sense,” Nagin said, shaking his head.