Katrina struck on Aug. 25, 2005, creating a need for a dump accepting vegetation only.

That is probably not how you remember it. Maybe you could have sworn that August 29 was the fateful day, and that, amid all the death and destruction, a repository for uprooted trees and poisoned bushes was not high on New Orleans' list of priorities.

At the time, Mayor Ray Nagin would not have argued otherwise. But, when he was hauled back in town to give a deposition last week, he proceeded to spout alternative facts. A quarter of the way through his 10-year federal prison sentence, Nagin may be forgiven if his mind is a bit messed up these days, but it beggars belief that anyone who was in New Orleans at the time, let alone the man in charge, should ever get the Katrina date wrong.

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That Nagin did was a sure sign that his command of the facts was too shaky to do either side in a $50 million-plus lawsuit much good, especially as he could not, in the circumstances, have arrived in a cooperative mood.

Nagin was hauled back to give his deposition in the same courthouse where he was found guilty in 2014 of taking payoffs from city contractors. At trial, he put on a self-confident, nay swaggering, show, apparently under the delusion that he could charm his way out of trouble.

He cut a much different figure last week, shuffling along in leg irons. It would take a mean spirit to rejoice in such a spectacle, for all Nagin's betrayal of the public trust. Now he was to be quizzed over allegedly corrupt acts that were not included in his criminal case. He could hardly have been expected to roll over and admit to them when he continues to deny the bribes he was convicted of taking. Sure enough, the attorneys who grilled him for five hours last week encountered a memory that failed at every crucial juncture.

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Nagin was deposed in the lawsuit brought by trash giant Waste Management, which alleges all manner of dirty tricks by the Jefferson Parish firm River Birch in the great post-Katrina landfill battle. The gravamen of the suit mirrors the theory espoused by federal prosecutors when they were building a case against River Birch owners Fred Heebe and Jim Ward.

That case collapsed when Heebe managed to finger two of those prosecutors, Sal Perricone and Jan Mann, as the authors of highly prejudicial online comments posted under various aliases. Now Waste Management seeks compensation for the profits it claims to have lost through the River Birch machinations.

River Birch certainly wiped the floor with Waste Management in the competition to handle the mountains of debris post Katrina, worth some $175 million in tipping fees. Jefferson Parish, at the time more or less a kleptocracy under President Aaron Broussard, agreed to give Waste Management the heave-ho and hand River Birch an exclusive contract. That contract, which Waste Management claimed was secured with illicit “financial benefits” for parish officials, was canceled after Broussard left office and went to prison for taking bribes, albeit not from River Birch.

Meanwhile, Henry Mouton pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting almost $500,000 from River Birch to use his influence as a state Wildlife and Fisheries commissioner to seek the closure of landfills run by competitors. One of them was Waste Management's Chef Menteur dump in New Orleans, the fate of which was entirely in Nagin's hand.

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It was therefore odd of Nagin to claim in his deposition that he did know anything about Mouton, who seems otherwise to have neglected no opportunity to lobby against Waste Management. Nagin authorized the Chef Menteur site soon after Katrina, rejected claims that it was causing environmental harm but then closed it down without explanation after six months of operation, diverting tons of lucrative trash to River Birch.

Nagin said in his deposition that he did not recall telephoning Ward to ask for campaign contributions or receiving a letter from him pointing out that he had donated $60,000 “from various corporations” over the previous two years.

Nobody asked why a Jefferson Parish company should be so generous to a New Orleans mayor. Perhaps there was no point. Not only was the answer obvious, but when Nagin claimed he thought Chef Menteur was a vegetation dump, it seemed that, so long as his legs were shackled, he figured he might as well pull everyone else's.

Email James Gill at jgill@theadvocate.com.

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