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january 18, 2013 • 01:11 PM • last update 02:54 PM

Former New Orleans mayor Nagin charged with corruption

Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans, talks during an interview in Havana October 20, 2009.
Foto: Enrique De La Osa / Reuters
 

A federal grand jury on Friday charged Ray Nagin, the former New Orleans mayor who denounced the federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, with 21 counts of public corruption over dealings with city vendors after the disaster.

The charges followed months of investigation by federal prosecutors, who reached agreements with several former associates of Nagin to provide evidence against him.

Nagin, who served as mayor from 2002-2010, stirred national controversy after the powerful hurricane broke local flood walls and inundated most of the city in 2005, killing some 1,500 people and wrecking tens of thousands of homes.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Nagin told federal officials to "get off your asses" as thousands of people who had been forced from their homes waited for help.

Nagin's attorney, Robert Jenkins, could not immediately be reached to comment on the charges, which stem from Nagin's dealings with companies providing services to the city.

The 21 counts include allegations of bribery including receiving kickbacks for city contracts, wire fraud, money laundering and filing false tax returns.

The government secured a key witness in November when businessman Rodney Williams admitted that he gave payments totaling $60,000 in 2008 to an unnamed public official in return for city contracts steered to Williams' engineering firm, according to court documents.

Williams also said he paid $10,000 to close family members of the public official, who were not identified by name.

Last June, businessman Frank Fradella pleaded guilty to bribing an unnamed public official with $50,000 in cash and "truckloads" of free granite delivered to a granite countertop installation company owned by the official.

Nagin and his sons, Jeremy Nagin and Jarin Nagin, owned a countertop company called Stone Age LLC.

When asked by reporters if the unnamed public official was Nagin, Fradella's lawyer Randall Smith repeatedly said: "If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it's probably a duck."

Businessman Aaron Bennett, who pleaded guilty in an unrelated government bribery case in Louisiana, has said that he introduced Nagin to Fradella to assist the Nagins' granite company in getting business.

Jeremy and Jarin Nagin last fall appeared before a grand jury and provided documents in response to a subpoena, their attorney Clarence Roby confirmed in October, noting that the two were not considered targets of an investigation.

The plea documents signed by Williams and Fradella identified the recipients of their bribes only as "Public Official A."

The Nagin administration's former chief technology officer, Gregory Meffert, pleaded guilty in 2010 to tax fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bribery in connection with a city program that received federal funds.

Mark St. Pierre, who ran a technology company that received big city contracts, is serving a 17-year prison sentence for bribing Meffert and another city official.

A former cable television executive, Nagin had broad political support during his first term as New Orleans mayor. He was re-elected after the hurricane in 2006 but alienated some supporters who saw his public comments as racially divisive.

In a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2006, Nagin, who is black, said: "It's time for us to rebuild ... a chocolate New Orleans," adding that "This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be."

He still managed to defeat his foremost challenger Mitch Landrieu, who then was lieutenant governor of the state. Landrieu succeeded Nagin as mayor in 2010.

Loyola University New Orleans Law Professor Dane Ciolino said the charges do not necessarily mean Nagin will go to trial.

"The vast majority of these cases end in a negotiated plea," Ciolino said.

(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Editing by Greg McCune and Andrew Hay)

Reuters Terra