NEW ORLEANS — In sharp exchanges Thursday with a prosecutor in his corruption trial, former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin flatly denied seeking $60,000 from a contractor who had just been turned down for city business.
"He lied," the ex-mayor said of key prosecution witness Rodney Williams, as Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman questioned him about three $20,000 payments made by Williams' company to Stone Age LLC, Nagin's family-owned granite business.
The testy back-and-forth came during cross-examination of Nagin, who is being tried on a 21-count indictment with charges including bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns. His testimony during which he also downplayed his power to approve no-bid contracts lasted until the trial recessed for the evening, and Nagin was expected to take the stand again Friday.
Earlier Thursday, Nagin's lawyer questioned him during a calm, point-by-point refutation of allegations that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes during and after his two terms, from 2002-2010. Prosecutors allege that his corruption included the period after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, when contractors sought to benefit from potentially lucrative rebuilding jobs in the devastated city.
Nagin gave his side a day after the prosecution rested, ending five days of testimony from more than two dozen prosecution witnesses, including Williams and four others who said they were involved in bribing the ex-mayor.
Exchanges with Coman were sharp but, at times, jocular. At one point, Coman discussed a Mardi Gras season mayoral ball that Williams attended. "Yes, with a thousand of my closest friends," Nagin said.
In a more serious tone, Nagin denied knowing that a one-time city vendor paid for his family's vacation to Hawaii in 2004, a trip that prosecutors have cast as one of several bribes he accepted.
"If anything, Greg said he was paying for" the trip, Nagin said under questioning from his lawyer, Robert Jenkins. He was referring to Greg Meffert, his former technology chief.
Meffert has pleaded guilty in the case and awaits sentencing. He testified last week that Nagin was aware that Mark St. Pierre and his NetMethods company paid for the Hawaii trip. St. Pierre was convicted of bribery and other charges in 2011.
Nagin sought to put a more innocent spin on what prosecutors have tried to establish as evidence of his corruption. He accepted a free private plane ride to Chicago for a Saints playoff game in early 2007 because flights out of New Orleans were still hard to arrange in the months after Katrina hit. He insisted that no business was discussed on the private plane of Frank Fradella, nor was it discussed in Chicago.
"Everybody was excited about the Saints," Nagin said.
Nagin's indictment says the flight was a "payoff" from Fradella, who has pleaded guilty in the case and testified that he bribed Nagin with cash and free granite for a foundering Nagin family granite business.
Nagin said the city paid for the flight after the trip was revealed in a newspaper article. "There was a lot of hoopla about the flight, for some reason," he said. He said it was proper for the city to cover the cost because he performed official functions, such as meeting with the mayor of Chicago.
Nagin, at various times, acknowledged payments from Fradella's and Williams' companies to Stone Age, but said that what prosecutors call bribes were actually investments — in each case after Stone Age did work for the businessmen.
"Whatever he was doing with Stone Age had no implications or would not influence me one iota with the city of New Orleans," Nagin said of Fradella, during early questioning from Jenkins.
Nagin was calm and even flippant at times during questioning from Jenkins.
"The guy in orange? Yeah, I saw him," he said when asked about witness Michael McGrath, a former investment banker, convicted of fraud in an unrelated case. McGrath wore bright orange prison garb when he testified about his role in Fradella's alleged bribery of Nagin.
Nagin was visibly irritated with prosecutor Coman as they debated the mayor's contracting authority. He acknowledged suspending a process in 2009 that called for a committee of experts that he had earlier set up by executive order to weigh in with recommendations on contractors. He said the suspension was only temporary while he sought consensus with City Council members who wanted the panel to hold open meetings. Nagin said contractors would object to having their applications discussed publicly.
Even before the suspension, Coman noted, Nagin's executive orders — which he had Nagin read on the stand — gave the mayor "sole authority" to approve no-bid contracts.
The defense noted that Fradella was involved in competitive bid contracts. Coman suggested that the mayor could influence that process, too, and said the mayor could refused to approve the lowest bid.
"Then, the vendor would sue the city for his lost revenues," Nagin said.