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Former Mayor Ray Nagin’s testimony turned testy in corruption trial

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE/ASSOCIATED PRESS) - After five days of damaging testimony, former Mayor Ray Nagin took the stand in his own defense on day 6.  He was calm and even glib at times with his answers as he told jurors he took no bribes or payoffs.

Nagin was charged in a 21 count federal corruption case.

Under direct examination, Former Mayor Ray Nagin was calm, cool and collected rebutting testimony by the prosecutions key witnesses.

"I've heard a lot throughout this trial that don't make sense," Nagin said at one point.

On Rodney Williams, who testified that he bribed Nagin in exchange for millions in city contracts, Nagin said, not so.  He told jurors his sons saw Williams as a big brother figure and that Williams was the one who wanted to invest $60,000 in their granite company, Stone Age LLC.

Nagin said he did not remember specific dates and times for meeting or talking with Williams.

"Some dates you can understand, but others are big dates," said FOX 8 Legal Analyst Joseph Raspanti.  "The question is who do they believe, the government or do they believe Ray Nagin?"

Under cross-examination, where the back and forth got testy at times, federal prosecutor Matt Coman reminded Nagin about his contact with Williams using photographs, cell phone records and calendar entries.

"You're saying it was Katrina and not the $60,000 that made their income spike," Coman asked.

"You're trying to tie this to the 60,000 dollars? God bless you," Nagin responded.

On Greg Meffert, Nagin's former chief technology officer, who detailed lavish trips taken by Nagin and his family paid for by city contractor Mark St. Pierre, Nagin told the court it was Meffert who was on the take and he had no idea. Nagin said he thought Meffert paid for the trips. Meffert testified earlier that the former mayor knew exactly who financed the vacations.

"Jurors can receive things, perceive things.  I think (Nagin) is doing well and I think they believe him," said Nagin's attorney, Robert Jenkins when asked what jurors were thinking about the former mayor's explanations.

Jurors seemed entertained at times, even laughing at some of the exchanges.

When Jenkins objected to the prosecutor standing too close to Nagin while asking a question Nagin answered: "You tell me, then go ahead and get closer.  We're friends."

As for his relationship with another city contractor, Nagin testified he did meet with Frank Fradella a number of times, but said it was always about development projects he believed would help move the city forward, at a time when post-Katrina federal dollars were slow to arrive.

When questioned about the tons of granite sent to Stone Age by Fradella, Nagin testified that his sons were going to sell the granite on consignment and that anything between Fradella and Stone Age was between Fradella and his sons.

In Nagin's second day on the stand, Coman grilled Nagin on all aspects of the 21 count indictment.

The last minutes were spent going over city credit card receipts and Nagin's appointment calendar entries to show that various personal dinners were charged to the city.

Nagin said that in at least one instance he reimbursed the city, although Coman said there is no record of such.

"Was this business or personal?" Coman asked about one $276 city-paid dinner that a calendar entry indicated was for Nagin's son's birthday.

"I have no idea, sir," Nagin replied.

Nagin said he could not recall details about years-ago meals but added that some of the charges were probably justified because he was often approached at restaurants by people who wanted to do business with the city.

Another entry showed a city-paid meal involving a landlord for Stone Age.

Nagin said the man was a contractor, likely seeking information about city work. "It wasn't about Stone Age business," Nagin said.

Earlier, Coman confronted Nagin with evidence of phone calls, meetings and checks from people who say they bribed him for city work or for his backing on development projects.

Nagin repeatedly downplayed his role in approving city contracts, particularly in the hectic days after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, when lucrative city rebuilding work was mounting. He denied any connection between his approval of contracts for Three Fold Consultants and more than $60,000 the company principals gave to Stone Age.

The Three Fold contracts, Nagin said, were recommended through a committee process and were among many awarded after Katrina.

"They hit my desk and I signed them," Nagin told Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman.

"Isn't it true, Mr. Nagin, that you traded tax dollars for Stone Age dollars?" Coman asked.

"It's not true," Nagin said. 

The former mayor acknowledged taking a $20,000-plus plane trip with his family to New York in 2006. "I don't have any independent recollection of how we got there," he said, adding that he learned only after the trip, upon seeing documentation that it was paid for by a movie theater owner.

"I flew a lot," Nagin said slowly, emphasizing each word, as Coman pressed him on the issue. He strongly denied that the trip was a payoff for his help in waiving tax penalties for the theater, as his indictment alleges.

Nagin said he acted primarily as a "financier" but not a hands-on manager for his two sons in the foundering Stone Age. He also said he recalled little or nothing about June phone calls to another of his accusers, businessman Frank Fradella.

Fradella has testified he bribed Nagin with free granite for Stone Age and with cash, including a $50,000 payment arranged by business associate Michael McGrath.  Coman showed Nagin phone records and calendar entries indicating he called Fradella on the same day McGrath sent Fradella an email inquiring about Fradella's need for $50,000.

Nagin said he didn't remember what was discussed in the phone calls. He denied asking for anything from Fradella that day or any other.

Subdued at first, Nagin grew more uncomfortable as Coman pressed on. He said Coman was leaping to conclusions about the phone calls to Fradella.

"This is tough for me to sit here and listen to all these false statements, sir," Nagin said after one testy exchange with Coman.

Nagin insisted that Williams and Fradella legitimately invested in Stone Age, with no bribery involved. He brushed off Coman's suggestions that the payments conflicted with Nagin's stated policy, evidenced in earlier defense testimony and in emails, that city government officials were not allowed to take money from or do business with contractors.

"That's what you told several people in your administration. Is that correct?" Coman asked.

"That's pretty well the way we did business," Nagin said.

Coman also focused on Nagin's varying accounts of his percentage of ownership in Stone Age and his failure to turn over some documents about the company to the Louisiana Board of Ethics. Nagin said he left much of the responsibility for dealing with the ethics board to an attorney and said his sons had neglected to provide some information.

"Thank you, Jesus," said Friday afternoon when U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan told him he could step down from the stand.

Copyright 2012 WVUE. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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