Mayor Ray Nagin leading the Krewe of Zulu on Mardi Gras Day 2008
"There's big money to be made in a storm" --Ray Nagin
Earlier this month, former Mayor Ray Nagin was convicted on 20 of 21 counts of petty corruption and tax evasion charges. Government witnesses described Nagin's acceptance of bribes in the form of trips to Hawaii and to Chicago for the NFC Championship game paid for by contractors soliciting business from the city. We heard some juicy stuff about Nagin's personal use of city credit cards. The testimony and emails of Home Depot executives about Nagin's solicitation of a deal for his sons' granite business was particularly devastating as it threw into clear relief the way Nagin's (admittedly small time) corrupt dealings perverted his mission as an elected representative.
Nagin later left voice mail messages for Home Depot officials, offering to help with community groups causing problems for the development of the new store.Note that Home Depot considered both Nagin AND the community groups Head represented to be "shakedown artists." Given the choice between granting considerations, such as a living wage agreement, to the community groups or just buying off Ray Nagin, they apparently chose the latter course. Maybe Home Depot should have been on trial. Maybe a lot of people should have been on trial who weren't. But we'll get to that.
Another Home Depot memo presented in court raised some red flags saying that the mayor’s calls, quote, “…were positioning himself for future jobs for his family business.”
The memo also stated that Home Depot’s CEO was aware of quote, “Nagin’s desire to be a vendor and install kitchen counter tops for us.”
Nagin eventually secured a granite installation contract with Home Depot in February 2007.
Home Depot government relations vice president Kent Knutson also testified, describing Nagin and the community groups as quote, “shake down artists.”
Knutson told the jury, “Everybody wanted something. Nagin wanted work for Stone Age, the community groups wanted higher wages and money for projects.”
Nagin's defense attorney Robert Jenkins cross examining Knutson tried suggesting New Orleans City Councilwoman Stacy Head, whose district would receive the Home Depot, was the shakedown artist, not Nagin.
"Stacy Head was angry with us and wasn’t going to attend the groundbreaking," Knutson said.
But when asked during the redirect from federal prosecutor Matthew Coman, "What did Stacy Head want?"
Knutson replied, "Community benefits."
"What did Ray Nagin want?" Coman then asked.
"Contracts for Stone Age," Knutson.
The second week of the trial became a Jazzfest type of spectacle as locals made tough decisions about which day they most wanted to attend. The headliner was Nagin himself who took the stand in his own defense on Thursday and Friday.
From a theatrical standpoint, he performed well. Nagin titillated the gawking audience with his trademark glibness and stubborn sarcasm. Otherwise it wasn't very good. It was a mystery to most observers that Nagin allowed this case to go trial in the first place. That he presented this sort of defense, though, was stunning. Behind all the excitement (perhaps overblown given the relatively modest sums of money exchanged in these dirty deals) could this really have been all there was? Some people think there's another act left to come but we'll talk about that later.
Nagin's two days of testimony basically amount to a claim that, as mayor, he was either ignorant of his responsibilities or in over his head or both. Other people ran the government/bribery shop. Nagin was just the guy who unlocked the office and turned on the lights. This exchange basically sums up his statements.
Nagin was clearly flustered at that point, stating that there were a number of different types of contracts being reviewed and claiming not to know the context under which Three Fold was not recommended for the work.Nagin didn't know shit. That was his defense. Nagin signed an executive order exempting his technology department from the usual bid process. Yeah well that was the City Attorney's idea.
The use of the new document capped a number of similar exchanged between Coman and Nagin, who engaged in a few verbal sparring sessions. One came when Coman asked Nagin who had sole discretion over selecting city professional service contracts, the kind Williams was seeking.
Nagin said he ultimately signed the contracts but the committee evaluated the firms without his input. Coman kept pressing that he wanted to know who had "sole discretion."
At one point, Nagin replied, “What do you want?”
“Man, I don’t know what you guys are presenting,” he added.
Of exec order exempting tech from bidding, Nagin says it was city atty Sherry Landry's idea. #nagintrial
— Gordon Russell (@GordonRussell1) February 6, 2014
Landry "came to me and said this seems to be a good process and we need you to sign it, so I signed it." #nagintrialLandry has strenuously refuted this, by the way. This article presents her comments after the trial.
— Gordon Russell (@GordonRussell1) February 6, 2014
Similarly, Nagin claimed not to have much to do with the details of his travel arrangements which he blamed on his secretary. The redacted meetings and items on his calendar were all the work of city attorneys. He even appeared to throw his own sons under the bus claiming to have been only a "passive" partner in their granite business which would imply the decision to accept favors on his.. passive.. behalf was entirely their own.
Throughout his testimony, Nagin asserted little or no knowledge of operations he was directly responsible for. Witnesses or documents directly refute his assertion. At one point, Nagin appeared to deny he was even responsible for his own signature.
"Once the contracts go through routing process come to my desk in big boxes.. 4-5 at a time.. and I’m required to sign them." #nagintrial
— Gordon Russell (@GordonRussell1) February 7, 2014
Nagin, apparently didn't even examine the contents of the boxes. These were like Schroedinger's contracts.
None of this should have surprised anyone. Redirecting blame was always a standard Nagin tactic. In 2007 (the same year, Nagin borrowed Smokey Johson's "Ain't My Fault" as the theme of his State of the City address) there was controversy over Nagin's decision to, again, replace all of the city's recently replaced garbage cans. Here's how he described the deal he was replacing.
In a recent interview, Nagin said he was never a fan of the squatty cans, bought with a no-bid contract at the direction of former Chief Administrative Officer Charles Rice. Rice left city government in 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina.Of course Nagin was never charged with anything having to do with the trash cans. But you can see why, at the time, people were asking questions about them. There's a familiar pattern at work. Sometimes that pattern rose to the level of prosecutable offense. But these moments were hardly aberrations. In fact, they were just Nagin keeping the Nagin brand out there, so to speak.
"Those little munchkin trash cans? We got rid of those," Nagin said, referring to the trash can deal as "a Charles Rice special."
The mayor's chief beef, apparently, was that the receptacles, known as "Jazzy Cans," were too small.
"I said to Charles, 'Where'd you find these trash cans?'" Nagin recounted. "They're about this tall," he added, holding his hand at the level of a table top. "I had to bend over to put stuff in ¤'em."
Told of the mayor's comments, Rice fired back.
"This was discussed with Ray Nagin one-on-one and in a staff meeting in his office," said Rice, who is practicing law. "Ultimately, any decision involving the city of New Orleans rests with the mayor. He approved the purchase of the trash cans, and at the end of the day, Ray Nagin makes the decision and bears the ultimate responsibility."
Nagin's election in 2002 rode a wave of enthusiasm for a particular brand of technocracy. The Times-Picayune and the Gambit heartily endorsed Nagin on the grounds that he was an "efficiency expert" who would "run government like a business." He was our MBA Mayor elected shortly after the country had elected its first MBA President.
In practice, though, the MBA executives turned out to be less efficient than they were aloof, standoffish, and often clownish. I was thinking about this a day or so after Nagin's famous "Chocolate City" speech when I made this graphic. It still makes me a little nostalgic.
The MBA style of governance may have afforded ample room for corrupt practices but it also allowed plenty of wiggle room for the disengaged executives themselves. This made it at least plausible that either George Bush or Ray Nagin could sit around just signing stuff their smarter conniving underlings put in front of them.
The trick, though, is to appear just stupid and sloppy enough to run a credible "I know nothing" defense without actually being stupid and sloppy enough to have that easily refuted by evidence.
Nagin wasn't able to pull it off. Jurors didn't find him credible. They disliked his demeanor, sure, but it was the repeated clear demonstration by prosecutors that he was lying that did him in.
Evans said Nagin testified before the grand jury in December 2012, a month before it voted to indict him. In that appearance, according to transcripts excerpted at trial Wednesday, Nagin claimed he didn’t remember cinema owner George Solomon ever asking him for a favor, or Solomon ever doing anything for him.Solomon is indeed the man. Shortly after the Nagin indictment was announced, Solomon was the subject of much parlor speculation as the presumed "Businessman A" critical to the bribery charges. This speculation turned out to be true. As it turns out, Solomon and his partners still owe the city over $6 million in loan payments. Which is why it's so neat that he's managed to contribute $10,000 to Mitch Landrieu since 2010.
But earlier testimony showed that Solomon pestered Nagin by email in May 2006 about waiving $55,000 in tax penalties he and his partners in the Grand of the East cinema owed the city. The waiver was granted shortly after Nagin asked Solomon whether he needed him to intervene. The same day, Solomon booked the Nagins on a private jet to New York City at a cost of $23,500.
An email introduced into evidence made clear Nagin knew who his benefactor was. “Thanks a bunch,” he wrote Solomon. “You the man!”
Neater still, Solomon has remained unindicted for the bribe Ray Nagin was convicted of accepting. Dambala's been wondering about that.. and not only that but also some other unindicted dudes.
Secondly, why isn't George Solomon indicted? If he bribed the Mayor with the private jet ride to NYC, why wasn't he charged? I was told that Jenkins did try to bring this up in the trial (I missed this part) but the judge stated he couldn't and called for a sidebar. Can someone explain to me how the prosecution can claim Solomon bribed Nagin but Nagin's defense can't mention that Solomon hasn't been charged with bribery?Not to mention Fred Heebe who.. well we know that story. And then there's this guy. I wonder if we'll ever hear that one.
What about Ed Burns from Ciber who was mentioned at the beginning of the trial? He is just as guilty of the campaign bundling charges as Mark St. Pierre...in some ways more..why wasn't he charged with a crime? (He was guilty of a lot more that didn't come up in the trial)
After the conviction, Mayor Landrieu expressed his hope that "this closes a very kind of ugly chapter in the history of the City of New Orleans.” Is it really time to do that, though? If Ray Nagin really is even half the incompetent stooge he's made a career out of pretending to be, surely there are more loose ends to tie up than just frying this small fish, right?