NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A former city contractor testified Thursday that he and his partners paid $60,000 in bribes sought by former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Nagin's sons and, in return, began getting work from the city that eventually totaled more than $2.6 million.
Rodney Williams was the first witness called Thursday in the federal corruption trial of Nagin, who served as mayor from 2002-2010. He said he was first approached by Nagin's two sons, and later by Nagin himself, about paying the money to help support the Nagin's family-owned granite company.
"The mayor told me he was tapped out and didn't have any additional money to put into the company and he appreciated me putting up the money that his sons had requested," said Williams, who earlier said he had made campaign contributions and taken Nagin on a fishing trip in hopes of winning city business, with no results.
Williams, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to a conspiracy charge. He is awaiting sentencing and said on the stand that he faces up to 37 months in prison. He faces cross-examination from defense lawyers on Friday.
Williams' testimony followed opening statements in which prosecutors said corruption flourished under Nagin. They alleged that the former mayor received money, free vacation travel and free granite for his family business— bribes worth more than $500,000 — for helping contractors receive millions of dollars' worth of city work.
"Corruption was alive and well in this building," Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman told jurors Thursday afternoon as a picture of New Orleans City Hall flashed on a screen behind him.
Defense lawyer Robert Jenkins countered that the work in question was awarded by public bid or through contracts in which committees played a role in selection. He promised email evidence to prove Nagin's innocence. And he said the federal case is built on the testimony of witnesses who are not credible because of their own criminal activity and the deals they made with the federal government.
"They all have baggage. All of them," Jenkins said, attacking the credibility of possible witnesses including businessman Frank Fradella, Nagin's former technology chief, Greg Meffert, and Meffert's, wife, Linda.
Nagin, a Democrat who was mayor when Hurricane Katrina stuck in 2005, served two terms before leaving office five years later. He was living in a Dallas suburb when a federal grand jury indicted him a year ago.
Opening statements came after U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan swore in 12 jurors and four alternates for the trial in which Nagin faces 21 criminal counts. Charges include bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns.
The trial began Monday with jury selection. A blast of winter weather in south Louisiana prompted cancellation of proceedings Tuesday and Wednesday.
The case resulted from a federal investigation that already has resulted in several convictions or guilty pleas by former Nagin associates, some of whom are potential witnesses in the trial.
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 Fradella. Nagin also was charged with accepting payoffs from 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, identified in court Thursday as George Solomon Jr.
Nagin agreed to waive tax penalties the businessman owed to the city on a delinquent tax bill in 2006, prosecutors said.
From several city contractors, Nagin is accused of accepting free travel and vacation expenses for trips to Hawaii, Chicago, Las Vegas and Jamaica while in office.
Prosecutors also said Nagin accepted monthly payoffs from Fradella totaling $112,250 after he left office.