NEW ORLEANS – A federal jury convicted former Mayor Ray Nagin on 20 of 21 public corruption counts Wednesday after deliberating for 6 hours over two days.
The verdict was hardly unexpected. More surprising was the fact that Nagin even tested the government's case, built over five years of media reports, FBI investigations and convictions of five co-conspirators.
The verdict marks the first conviction of a New Orleans mayor and caps a seven-year fall from grace for Nagin, who emerged from Hurricane Katrina as a national figure but became ever more reviled in his own city.
Things began to unravel publicly for the mayor in 2007 when Gordon Russell, then at The Times-Picayune, started to uncover corruption inside Nagin's technology office, his granite business' arrangement with The Home Depot and his free flight to Chicago.
Then WWL-TV raised questions about a house-gutting program and reporter Lee Zurik demanded copies of Nagin's calendar. Both Russell and Zurik figured prominently in the trial, with prosecutors focusing on Nagin's defensive reactions to their reporting.
During Nagin's final year and a half in office, I exposed his trips to Hawaii, Jamaica and Chicago paid by contractor Mark St. Pierre, along with some of the personal charges on his city credit card.
Nagin's reaction to those reports mirrored his response to prosecutors on the witness stand: "I don't get this."
And after Nagin left office, a string of former employees and contractors went to federal court to plead guilty to their role in paying or facilitating bribes. It started with Greg Meffert, the former tech chief and self-proclaimed deputy mayor who admitted taking bribes from St. Pierre and using some of the money to send Nagin on family vacations.
Then St. Pierre was convicted on 53 counts and was sentenced to 17 years in prison. The man Nagin tapped to run the tech office after Meffert left, Anthony Jones, also pled guilty to taking St. Pierre's bribes. Fradella pled guilty to bribing Nagin, Fradella's former partner Aaron Bennett pled in a separate case and agreed to testify against the mayor and, finally, Williams emerged in late 2012 as the linchpin.
Although a few of the acts in the conspiracy count stemmed from before the storm, the vast majority of the charges were for deals Nagin got involved with in 2007 and 2008. For example, he didn't even meet Frank Fradella until a January 2007 trip to Chicago to see the Saints play the Bears in the NFC Championship.
Rodney Williams' relationship with the mayor dated back to a 2002 fishing trip, but Williams' initial efforts to curry favor with Nagin didn't work. Prosecutors said it wasn't until Nagin really needed Williams' cash to keep his countertop business afloat that he began to reward Williams and his partners with contracts.