Witness: Vendor funded ex-New Orleans mayor trips

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Associated Press

Posted on February 1, 2014 at 7:00 AM

Updated Saturday, Feb 1 at 7:00 AM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former Mayor Ray Nagin took lavish vacations to Hawaii and Jamaica paid for by a major technology vendor, the mayor's former tech chief testified Friday in federal court.

Greg Meffert, testifying as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, said the vendor was Mark St. Pierre, who owned a company called NetMethods and was convicted of bribery in 2011.

Meffert said he was able to hire St. Pierre to do city work on a no-bid basis, thanks to an executive order Nagin signed in 2004.

That same year, Meffert said, the Meffert and Nagin families met in Hawaii, with airfare and accommodations paid by St. Pierre's cash and a credit card St. Pierre gave to Meffert.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman asked whether Nagin knew who was paying for the trip. Meffert assured Coman that Nagin knew.

"We talked about NetMethods and Mark. I wanted to make sure Mark got credit for it," Meffert said.

Meffert said he knew the arrangement was improper and, when discussing the trip with others, implied or said that he financed the travels himself.

"Why not tell the truth about it?" asked Coman.

"Because it would be absolutely crazy, going around telling people that we had a city vendor paying for our trip to Hawaii," Meffert said.

Meffert also detailed St. Pierre's efforts to help finance Nagin's 2006 re-election campaign by illegally funneling more than $100,000 to the campaign by reimbursing individuals who made contributions within the limit of $5,000.

St. Pierre was convicted in May 2011 of charges that include conspiracy, bribery and money laundering.

Meffert discussed Nagin's relationship with another businessman, Frank Fradella, who arranged a flight for Nagin and his wife to an NFL playoff game in 2007. On the plane, Meffert said, he and Nagin talked with Fradella and a Fradella associate about steering city business to Fradella's company, Home Solutions. The discussions included the possibility of Home Solutions doing business with Nagin's family.

Defense attorney Robert Jenkins pointed to deals Meffert and his wife made with prosecutors to question whether Meffert was telling the truth. Meffert has pleaded guilty in the case and is awaiting sentencing. His wife was placed in a pre-trial diversion program under an agreement that would lead to the charges against her being dropped.

"On the day that you entered into this plea agreement, you got something for yourself and for your wife," said Jenkins.

"What I did was decide to stop running," Meffert said.

Fradella took the stand next and became the fourth witness to implicate Nagin in bribes. He corroborated Meffert's story about the plane ride to Chicago and detailed ways Nagin worked with him to get backing for city projects. And, he detailed arrangements to get $50,000 to Nagin when the then-mayor said he needed money to support Stone Age, the family company he founded with his sons.

"He said Stone Age was in trouble," testified Fradella, who pleaded guilty in June 2012 to conspiracy to commit bribery.

Nagin was mayor from 2002 until 2010, including the tumultuous period during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

He was indicted after leaving office. His 21-count indictment accuses him of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — including money, trips and truckloads of free granite from Fradella for his family business — in return for helping contractors secure city business. Charges against Nagin include bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns.

Testimony in the trial, which continues next week, began Thursday with former city contractor Rodney Williams.

Williams testified Thursday that he and his partners paid $60,000 in bribes to secure city contracts at a time when money was flowing following Katrina.

Jenkins on Friday noted that Williams has acknowledged having lied to the FBI about the case before eventually making a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. Jenkins said the conspiracy charge to which Williams pleaded could have meant a five-year sentence and noted that Williams has yet to be formally sentenced.

Jenkins also showed copies of documents from a review panel that looked at the qualifications of applicants for city contracts, suggesting in his questions that Williams and prosecutors were overstating the power of Nagin to approve contracts.

Coman countered in follow-up questioning by pointing out language indicating that, while the panel reviewed qualifications, it was the mayor who had power to approve the documents.

Coman also addressed Williams' motives for testifying, seeking to counter Jenkins' suggestions that Williams was concocting a story prosecutors wanted the jury to hear.

Under Coman's questioning, Williams said he would not be facing jail time at all had he not bribed Nagin, nor would he be in a courtroom testifying in a criminal case.

"Did you deliver for Ray Nagin?" Coman asked.

"Yes," Williams said.

"Did he deliver for you?"

"Yes."

Williams, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to a conspiracy charge that carries a five-year sentence. His plea agreement calls for a sentence ranging from 30 to 37 months.

Corroborating Williams' story later Friday was witness Bassam Mekari, a former business partner of Williams who said he cashed a $10,000 check and gave the money to one of Nagin's sons — a bribe, Mekari said.

"I've always been schooled, you know, 'You got to pay to play here in New Orleans,'" Mekari said as Jenkins questioned him about the payment.

Mekari has not been charged with a crime but, Jenkins noted, reached a 'pre-trial diversion' agreement with the government to avoid prosecution.

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