Jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his business partner Ronald Markham walked into federal court Thursday and pleaded not guilty to a raft of federal charges springing from allegations that they fleeced the New Orleans Public Library Foundation for lavish expenses, including a gold-plated trumpet.
The arraignment in the federal courthouse on Poydras Street was the first time the Grammy Award-winning trumpeter has appeared before a judge since he and Markham were indicted on Dec. 14.
Mayfield wore a crisp, navy blue sweater and shook the hand of his longtime friend and co-defendant when he entered the courtroom. Both men listened attentively as a federal prosecutor reviewed their punishment if convicted as charged: up to 20 years in prison.
The feds allege that Mayfield and Markham, a pianist, stole almost $1.4 million in funds from the Library Foundation, where they sat as board members between 2011 and 2013.
Mayfield and Markham are both charged with one count of conspiracy, four counts of wire fraud, one count of money laundering, 11 counts of money laundering and aiding and abetting, and one count of obstruction of justice. Mayfield alone faces an additional charge of mail fraud.
Noting that both men have no criminal record, Magistrate Judge Daniel Knowles ordered them released on $25,000 unsecured appearance bail each. That means they will have to post a monetary bond only if they fail to appear in court.
Knowles set a March 12 trial date, but that date could be pushed back.
Although prosecutors allege that Mayfield lived a jet-setting life with Library Foundation funds — including stays at luxury hotels in New York City — he has claimed poverty to the court. He told pre-trial services officials that his monthly bills exceed his roughly $800 a month in income as a musician.
Knowles appointed Claude Kelly, a veteran federal public defender, to represent Mayfield. Markham is being represented by lawyer Sara Johnson.
Kelly declined to address the specific allegations against his client outside the courthouse. Instead, he ripped into the U.S. Attorney's Office and WWL-TV reporter David Hammer, who has written a series of investigative stories about Mayfield over the years. The New Orleans Advocate has a content-sharing partnership with the station.
Kelly claimed he had evidence that the U.S. Attorney's Office leaked information from the grand jury proceedings in the case to Hammer, and that prosecutors admitted to doing so in a Dec. 21 meeting in court chambers. They would not, however, disclose who shared the information, Kelly claimed.
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment on the leak allegation, citing the "active, ongoing" nature of the case against Mayfield.
"We intend to respond fully to defendant’s motion at the time required under local rules of court. We remain confident in the underlying merits of this prosecution and in our ability to carry the burden of proof on the charges outlined in the indictment," Acting U.S. Attorney Duane Evans said in a statement.
Hours after the arraignment, Kelly filed a motion to dismiss the indictment against his client because of the alleged leaks. He said Hammer entered the federal courthouse more than an hour before the indictment was unsealed on Dec. 14 and told a court clerk that he was waiting for it to be handed down.
It’s not uncommon for defense attorneys to file such motions claiming that prosecutors have tainted courthouse proceedings. However, such allegations could carry greater weight in New Orleans, where prosecutorial misconduct led a judge to throw out the jury verdicts in the Danziger Bridge shooting case.
Mayfield has said little about the allegations beside a July 2016 statement. “I do not believe that I have violated any law,” he said then.
Federal prosecutors allege that Mayfield and Markham spent foundation money on perks including rooms at the Ritz-Carlton and Park Central hotels, trips to Harrah’s Casino, and the gold-plated trumpet. They said other funds were spent to support the operating expenses of Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which was hemorrhaging money after the city cut off grant funding to it in February 2011.
When the FBI started looking into the Library Foundation’s finances, Mayfield and Markham falsified board minutes to cover up their misdeeds, prosecutors claim.
Mayfield was well known on the city’s music scene even before Hurricane Katrina. Afterward, he became a metaphorical ambassador — and a literal “cultural ambassador” at the behest of former Mayor Ray Nagin — for the city’s return.
He also picked up a Grammy Award for best large jazz ensemble album for his work with the Jazz Orchestra in 2009.