U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan on Tuesday ordered former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to forfeit $501,201 to the federal government, agreeing with federal prosecutors that the half-million dollars represented the sum of the disgraced mayor’s ill-gotten gains in a corruption scheme for which Nagin is awaiting sentencing.
Prosecutors last month filed a request for forfeiture that closely mirrored the case they presented during Nagin’s February trial, at which a jury convicted the former mayor on 20 of 21 counts of bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy.
In their motion, prosecutors argued that all of the bribe payments and gifts Nagin received, along with the proceeds of an exclusive contract the Nagin family’s granite company received from Home Depot, should be paid back.
Nagin’s lawyer, Robert Jenkins, agreed with most of the government’s analysis in a motion filed April 18. But he quibbled with two items, saying the former mayor wasn’t the sole beneficiary of gifts of granite received by the family’s firm, Stone Age, which the government valued at $52,006. Jenkins made the same argument regarding the $170,290 in payments Stone Age received from its Home Depot installation contract, saying Nagin should have to pay back only the portion that benefited him directly. Jenkins did not propose an alternate amount that Nagin should have to forfeit.
Berrigan seemed to entertain Jenkins’ argument in her ruling, saying “There was little evidence at trial regarding how Stone Age distributed its assets generally and none whatsoever regarding how it spread the value of this granite among (its) members.” The same was true of the Home Depot contract, she said.
However, she reasoned that the jury found Nagin guilty of a conspiracy charge, which named his sons — his primary business partners — as unindicted co-conspirators, making them liable as well. To argue they were not culpable, Berrigan wrote, Nagin “would have to show that the evidence presented failed to link himself, Mr. (Frank) Fradella and his Stone Age co-owners in a common unlawful purpose unrelated to the granite inventory. That argument is Mr. Nagin’s to make,” and he did not do so, she wrote.
The significance of the forfeiture order is difficult to determine, given Nagin’s shaky financial status. Unlike orders for restitution, which tend to result in long-term payback schedules for convicted defendants, forfeiture orders allow the government to seize and sell a convicted person’s assets.
But it’s not clear what Nagin has in the way of assets. Earlier this month, his wife, Seletha, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in Texas, where the Nagins have lived for several years. That filing came just before their townhouse in the Dallas suburb of Frisco was to be sold at a foreclosure auction.
A Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing triggers an automatic stay on collection efforts, including foreclosures.
The forfeiture order, once finalized, could subject the Nagin home to seizure, according to lawyers familiar with bankruptcy proceedings.
Seletha Nagin’s bankruptcy petition listed 14 creditors but did not specify the amount owed to each. The list included Everhome, which holds the note on the Nagins’ townhouse.
Nagin is due to be sentenced June 11, although Jenkins has asked Berrigan to push that date back by two weeks. Jenkins said he needs more time to study a presentence investigation drawn up by federal probation officers and to file objections to their recommendations.
Lawyers familiar with sentencing guidelines say they expect the report to call for a lengthy sentence — at least 15 years and perhaps as many as 20 — based on the numerous counts on which Nagin was convicted and the amount of money involved. Berrigan is not required to follow the sentencing guidelines, but judges typically consider them closely in meting out prison terms.
Nagin’s sentence could include fines and a restitution order in addition to the forfeiture order Berrigan issued Tuesday.
Follow Gordon Russell on Twitter, @gordonrussell1.