He never booked his own plane trips, and with the airport in post-Katrina chaos, Ray Nagin just caught rides where he could.
His call to Home Depot officials to get work for his family’s granite business may have come while the company was haggling with the city over a new Central City store, but they were totally unrelated.
The deal to relieve New Orleans East theater owner George Solomon of a hefty tax penalty may have come less than an hour before Solomon shuttled Nagin and his family on a private jet for a shop-till-you-drop vacation in New York. But Nagin had no idea the trip set Solomon back $23,000 and, besides, the tax deal was in the city’s best interest.
Nagin didn’t lie to the FBI or a federal grand jury about pitching Home Depot for his family business or having his vacations paid for by others. He just heard the questions differently.
The former mayor laid out an assortment of rationales Friday over an array of allegations contained in the 21-count indictment against him, returning to the stand for a second day testifying at his federal corruption trial. The common thread was that in each case, someone else was to blame.
Federal prosecutor Matt Coman poked and prodded throughout morning, aiming to draw together five distinct schemes into a portrait of a corrupt city leader on the take for political favors and sweetheart deals.
But Nagin, acting far more subdued and brusque than in his sometimes jaunty performance on the stand Thursday, sniffed at Coman’s suggestion that he broke his own rule for city employees to steer clear of accepting things from anyone seeking contracts or working with the city.
Coman focused heavily on Nagin’s schedule as mayor, which had been heavily redacted before it reached media that sued over it years ago.
Among the redactions, Coman pointed out, were meetings with convicted contractors Frank Fradella and Rodney Williams, along with Fradella associate Michael McGrath.
The suggestion: Nagin was seeking to hide funny business with Fradella and Williams, both of whom allegedly paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to Nagin, and in Fradella’s case, truckloads of valuable granite.
Nagin said he played no part in the redactions or in fighting the media requests.
“I don’t know who blacked it out, I didn’t. As a matter of fact my position on records requests has always been, if they want it they can have it. I have nothing to hide,” Nagin said.
“Those records requests were handled by my assistant and a city attorney. As far as those records that were blacked out, I had nothing to do with that.”
The public records requests, he said, were “something that was handled at a different level,” Nagin said.
The former mayor was deliberate in responding to questions about the Solomon-funded trip to New York, claiming he only lately saw the $23,000 check to Net Jets that Solomon wrote for the flight.
“Did George Solomon out of the blue order you a jet?” Coman asked.
“I don’t know,” Nagin responded. “Hurricane Katrina hit. New Orleans airport was damaged. Most of the commercial flights were gone and we had to take a private jet. Sometimes a person was going to the same location as us and we would piggyback on a private jet...People were just trying to help us. It was post-Katrina.”
Nagin said he was jetting across the country and the world regularly to talk about the Katrina recovery.
Specifically asked about who paid for the New York trip, Nagin turned to answer directly to the jury:
“Umm, I’ve been thinking about this. This has been asked of me a lot of times. At the time it happened we were having a tough time getting flights. We went to New York. I don’t have an independent recollection of how we got there,” Nagin said.
“Later I saw documentation that Mr. Solomon provided the plane and there was a cost associated with it. I never saw those documents before.”
Asked about a trip to Jamaica in October 2005 that was funded by technology contractor Mark St. Pierre, Nagin stuck to his guns that he thought it was bankrolled by city technology czar Greg Meffert.
“This particular trip, Greg Meffert came to me and said, ‘Hey man, as an early Christmas present I’d like to take you and your family to Jamaica.”
Meffert testified earlier that he made sure that Nagin knew St. Pierre was paying for the trip. Coman insisted that Nagin knew it was St. Pierre, and that Meffert even left St. Pierre’s credit card with a Nagin assistant.
Asked if Meffert was a liar, Nagin responded: “He lied a lot of times. To the feds, and the FBI and in his civil case I think Meffert lied a lot. He’s quite a storyteller.”
“Have you ever lied,” Coman asked.
“I’m not perfect,” the former mayor said.
“In this case?”
“No, I’m telling you the truth.”
FBI Agent Dan Evans testified earlier that Nagin told him, in an unrecorded interview, that neither Meffert, nor St. Pierre, nor anyone else paid for the trip.
“Did agent Evans lie to what he testified the other day?” Coman asked.
“I’m not saying he lied. It’s interesting to me the FBI interviews you and there’s no audiotape about what happened,” Nagin replied.
“I’ve been very consistent. Greg Meffert said he paid for these trips. Greg Meffert told me he was doing this as a personal favor to me. And Greg Meffert never told me Mark St. Pierre was paying for any of this.”
Despite emails between Home Depot officials, suggesting that Nagin was shilling for a piece of the action for the granite business, Stone Age LLC, while in discussions for the new store, Nagin describes is efforts on behalf of he family firm as “an arms-length transaction.”
Coman, pointing to emails describing Nagin’s effort to get 10 to 20 jobs per week for Stone Age from Home Depot, Nagin claimed he was merely trying to find out how his sons could go through the normal process for getting work for the home improvement giant.
“I talked to them about the process What was the process for my sons’ company to be a vendor for your company. That’s it.”
Prosecutors claim Nagin’s interest in the granite business influenced his refusal to back a neighborhood group seeking concessions from Home Depot.
That group’s efforts ultimately failed.
Earlier in the morning, Coman rolled through a ream of city contracts that Nagin signed for Williams’ firm, Three Fold; bank and tax records for Stone Age, and e-mails and other documents, aiming to illustrate a series of alleged pay-to-play schemes that Nagin has repeatedly denied.
Nagin gamely resisted Coman’s attempt to connect the dots from contractors seeking work with the city and large payments and granite shipments into a struggling Stone Age.
The focus was on contract awards to Three Fold, and payments from Williams and others to Stone Age. It soon turned to developer Frank Fradella’s bid for favor from Nagin - and alleged payoffs through Stone Age as Fradella pushed several major projects in the city, including a concept for a NASCAR track at the former Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans East.
At one point, Nagin wearily asked Coman to back off from the loaded questions regarding Fradella.
“You keep insinuating here. This is tough for me to listen to all of these false statements sir,” Nagin said. “I’m trying to answer these questions as truthfully as I can. You’ve been misinformed.
“I’m trying to be honest. Be a little more straightforward with your questions. It would help.”
Coman had just flashed on a courtroom screen a transcript of Nagin’s appearance before a federal grand jury, in which he was asked whether he ever awarded contracts to Fradella or “award or sign contracts to him or any of his related entities.”
“Nope,” was Nagin’s answer before the grand jury, although documents in the corruption case against Nagin clearly show he signed contracts as mayor for Fradella,
Nagin chalked it up to misunderstanding the question.
“I overlooked the ‘related entities’ part,” Nagin said.
Nagin continued to downplay his role - and his stake - in Stone Age, the granite installation firm that his sons set up to take advantage of a ripe post-Katrina market for countertop work.
Nagin, who described himself as a largely silent “financier” of the company, acknowledged going to bat for the company in phone calls to prospective customers. But he said his stake in the company was low.
Coman played off the payments Fradella and Three Fold were delivering to Stone Age - including more than $150,000 in cash and granite - against an email Nagin sent to Aaron Bennett in Feb. 28, 2007, turning away Bennett’s suggestion of doing business with Stone Age.
“Nope, not interested. My sons will not be able to do business with you guys as long as you go after city business,” the email states.
Nagin sought to persuade the jury that the two shipments of free granite he received from Fradella – a total of four truckloads – were worthless.
“I wouldn’t put a value of $10 on those slabs,” Nagin testified. He added that the slabs crumbled and fell apart when his sons tried to cut them.
Two earlier witnesses, former Fradella employees who are not charged with any crimes in the case, testified otherwise. One of them, Larry Laseter, acknowledged that some of the slabs in the first shipment were damaged, but he estimated its value at roughly $40,000.
Because the Nagins were displeased with the first shipment, Fradella put a different employee in charge of the next one. That employee, Robert Rouyer, said he spent two days selecting the best pieces of granite from Home Solutions’ yard.
Nagin dismissed Rouyer’s account Friday, saying: “I heard him say he thought they were good but he’s not a granite guy.”
When Coman asked him about Laseter’s testimony, Nagin said, “That’s the guy that Frank fired.”
Coman also asked about a $50,000 payment to Stone Age in May 2008 from Fradella, a day after Fradella and Nagin spoke by phone, according to Nagin’s mayoral schedule.
Coman also pounded Nagin over the ownership arrangements in Stone Age. Various documents show Nagin with an ownership share of 20 percent, 38 percent, 40 percent, 51 percent and 60 percent.
Nagin dismissed the latter document, which was submitted to the Internal Revenue Service, as something he did for tax purposes.
He repeatedly cited the 20 percent figure Friday as he sought to minimize his role in the firm. That number may be derived from splitting Nagin’s 40 percent share between him and his wife, which Nagin said was the effect of Louisiana’s community property laws.
While Nagin said he was aware that the partners in Three Fold Consultants had purchased a 4.5 percent share in the company – reducing his share to 38 percent – he said he never knew that the sons had sold a stake to McGrath, a mortgage broker and Home Solutions board member.
Nagin said he only found out about that when he was going through some boxes in his garage to respond to a subpoena. He said he sent it to his accountant as soon as he found it.
Coman sought to suggest that the reason the investment wasn’t recorded was because McGrath had serious legal issues and the Nagins didn’t want to acknowledge any relationship with him. The FBI raided McGrath’s New Jersey house in early 2009 and he pleaded guilty to mortgage fraud several months later.
The $50,000 check he sent to Stone Age was initially recorded as a loan, rather than an investment, which had the effect of keeping McGrath’s name off certain documents.
Regardless, Nagin said the payment wasn’t connected to city business.
“You asked Frank Fradella for that $100,000 and you got the $50,000 from them, when your bank account for Stone Age was in the red, correct?” Coman asked.
“I never received that $50,000 sir.”
“Stone Age took it,” Coman responded.
“He was investing in my son’s business,” Nagin replied.
“That’s not your business?”
“I own a small piece of it.”
“What small piece?”
“You own 20 percent, sir?”
“Yes sir, in that range.”
Coman then posted a 2007 tax statement from Stone Age that shows Nagin owning 60 percent of the firm, into which he said he injected more than $10,000 a month of his own money.
Nagin said his tax professional stated the 60 percent ownership figure to account for the former mayor’s investment in the firm, not his stake in the company’s operations.
Defending his service to the city, Nagin said he took “a 300 percent pay cut” from his job for Cox Communications when he ran for office in 2002.
“I went from having a seven figure net worth (to) when I left office, not having much of that left. I was working for the citizens of the City of New Orleans,” Nagin said.
“And so while you took a pay cut...you took from city contractors to supplement your income,” Coman replied.
“That’s not true,” Nagin said brusquely. “I was prepared to do what it takes” financially.
“I continued to fund that company for many months and years after that. It wasn’t until all of this negative stuff started to have surfaced that we concluded the business wasn’t going to go forward,” Nagin said. “But I still had the resources to go forward.”