Jury selection began Monday in the trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who faces charges that he accepted bribes and free trips among other things from contractors in exchange for helping them secure millions of dollars in city work.
Nagin, a Democrat who was mayor when Hurricane Katrina stuck in 2005, served two terms before leaving office in 2010. He was living in a Dallas suburb when a federal grand jury indicted him a year ago.
Nagin had little to say as he entered the federal courthouse with a noticeable limp.
Each bribery count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Each wire fraud count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The charges are the product of a City Hall corruption investigation that already has resulted in several convictions or guilty pleas by former Nagin associates.
Nagin’s 21-count indictment accuses him of accepting more than $160,000 in bribes and truckloads of free granite for his family business in exchange for promoting the interests of local businessman Frank Fradella. Nagin also was charged with accepting at least $60,000 in payoffs from another businessman, Rodney Williams, for his help in securing city contracts.
The indictment claims Nagin received free private jet and limousine services to New York from an unidentified businessman who owned a New Orleans movie theater. Nagin allegedly agreed to waive tax penalties the businessman owed to the city on a delinquent tax bill in 2006.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, jury selection is getting underway today in New Orleans in the trial of the city's former Mayor Ray Nagin. He's charged with almost two dozen acts of corruption spanning several years. They include trading city contracts for money and other favors. Joining us to discuss is Eve Troeh. She's news director of WWNO in New Orleans. Eve, welcome.
EVE TROEH: Hi Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, of course we all remember Ray Nagin from Hurricane Katrina, when he really did take on a national role both during and then after the storm.
TROEH: Right, definitely. Well Ray Nagin, to go even further back, was elected in 2002 as a prominent local businessman who was going to change politics as usual in New Orleans. He was going to run the city like a business. Now of course no one could have predicted that Hurricane Katrina would completely change everything about the city, one of the nation's great tragedies, a huge loss of life and just unprecedented destruction everywhere.
And Ray Nagin was really seen as someone who was willing to stand up and speak truth to power, if you will, to higher officials, including President George W. Bush, in the wake of Katrina. He was someone who was out there saying no, we need all the resources you can get. He was something of a celebrity and a local iconoclast, something - a lightning rod for the people of New Orleans to say that's our mayor. He was really our mayor, for people living here at the time, including myself.
And that included some pretty interesting moments. The mayor was known for being outspoken, and he had these sort of memorable quotes. And I actually have an artifact from that time here with me in the studio. Our ops director had this in his office. It's a keychain called Da Mayor in Your Pocket.
TROEH: This is how big of a deal Ray Nagin's outspokenness was. It's a keychain that will play six quotes from the mayor from that time right after Katrina. Here we go.
RAY NAGIN: You've got to be kidding me. This is a national disaster. Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed.
HOBSON: Wow, he didn't mince words at all, did he?
TROEH: No, definitely not, and it's that outspokenness that in large part got him re-elected in 2006.
HOBSON: Well Eve, tell us about these charges because I'm looking over them, and, you know, the list is just extremely long: accepting more than $72,000 from Rodney Williams; accepting $50,000 and several truckloads of granite from Frank Fradella. Tell us about what he's facing here.
TROEH: Well, these charges were made back about a year ago now, in January of 2013. He's got 21 counts of bribery, wire fraud and conspiracy. And the Feds have traced this all the way back to 2004, so even before Katrina, but most of these charges do come from that second term.
So he was re-elected, charged with rebuilding the city, and it seems that there were some very serious missteps during that time. Ray Nagin had a granite business with his sons, and he's charged with brokering a deal with Home Depot to provide some exclusive contracts for his granite company.
Now all in all, the bribery charges add up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars, which yes, it's a lot of money, but when you think of the price of a politician's integrity at such a crucial time for the city, it's sort of a disappointing amount of money. Like really sacrificing the city's integrity, sacrificing the needs of so many people during such a time of suffering for a few hundred thousand dollars, it's just not that much money, especially for a very successful businessman like Ray Nagin.
So these charges are perhaps disappointing but sadly not surprising.
HOBSON: Well, what is he saying about them?
TROEH: He is not saying much. I think you can understand what he's saying about them by the fact that we're having this trial. I mean, several other businessmen indicted last year have taken plea deals, and Ray Nagin has not. So just by the very fact that he's seeing this through to trial seems to say something about how he thinks he'll fare in court.
HOBSON: Eve, I remember having a conversation in New Orleans with a journalist there, a friend of mine, who said to me, you know, some people think of New Orleans as the worst-run city in America. I like to think of it as the best-run city in the Caribbean. And I wonder, you know, with all of this, how people are feeling about this trial and what it says about the city.
TROEH: Well yes, that's a common trope here, that New Orleans is in fact the northernmost city in the Caribbean. And what goes along with that, that corruption, perhaps, should not be surprising. I think that has perhaps changed in recent years. We have a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, who ran against Nagin in 2006, but he did become mayor in 2010, and there have been some strides since then.
Whether it's just fantastic public relations, maybe not the reality for everyone in New Orleans, especially in devastated areas like New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, time will tell. But things have changed in the sense of New Orleans making lists of best places to start a business, best places to live, lots of people moving here and an interest in the city. We've got new hospitals that are being built.
And I would say the city feels better-run than it was in those years right after Katrina.
HOBSON: So what happens now, Eve?
TROEH: Well, Ray Nagin walked into the courtroom this morning apparently with a pronounced limp. When asked if he could comment, he said oh, I wish I could. Assuming jury selection today continues, and the trial continues, it could last about two weeks, and I think we'll see whether Ray Nagin will go to jail or go off into the Texas sunset, which is where he lives now.
He's been living somewhat anonymously in a suburb outside of Dallas called Frisco.
HOBSON: Eve Troeh from WWNO in New Orleans, thanks so much for bringing us up to date.
TROEH: Thanks, Jeremy.
HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.