Bribery Trial To Begin For Ex-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

A high-stakes public corruption trial starts in New Orleans on Monday. Former Mayor Ray Nagin faces federal criminal charges in what prosecutors describe as a series of schemes to profit from his position. He's accused of taking more than $200,000 worth of bribes from businessmen who won lucrative city contracts when he was in office.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, a corruption trial begins in one of the great cities of the world. Pick your pronunciation: New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans. Former Mayor Ray Nagin faces federal criminal charges there. Prosecutors accuse him of a series of schemes to profit from his position. He's accused of taking more than $200,000 worth of bribes from businessmen who, in turn, won lucrative city contracts.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Ray Nagin became the face of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina bore down on the city in 2005, and he urged residents to flee.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

MAYOR RAY NAGIN: The storm surge most likely will topple our levee system. So that's why we're ordering a mandatory evacuation.

ELLIOTT: He blasted then-President Bush for not sending federal help sooner. And perhaps most famously, uttered this line in the aftermath of the devastating storm.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

NAGIN: We, as black people, it's time. It's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans.

ELLIOTT: Now, the former two-term mayor is set to square off with federal prosecutors in a criminal case that marks the first time a mayor of New Orleans has been indicted.

STEPHANIE GRACE: Plenty of other public officials have been indicted, but not New Orleans mayors.

ELLIOTT: Stephanie Grace is a newspaper columnist for the New Orleans Advocate. She says it's ironic that when Nagin first ran for office as a political newcomer in 2002, he pledged to take on business as usual.

GRACE: He was a reformer. He really ran against exactly this type of thing: contracting, self-dealing. He talked about taking the "for sale" sign off of City Hall.

ELLIOTT: But Nagin's second term was plagued with allegations of corruption, and frustration over the pace of the Katrina recovery. A number of contractors and one of the mayor's top aides have since either pleaded guilty or been convicted in a series of similar but unrelated bribery schemes.

A year ago, federal prosecutors got their biggest target - indicting Nagin on 21 counts, including conspiracy, bribery and money laundering. Grace says he's accused of being on the receiving end of quite an assortment of kickbacks.

GRACE: Money, travel, trips to Hawaii, trips to New York, granite - free granite.

ELLIOTT: Nagin owns a granite countertop business with his sons. New Orleans lawyer Chick Foret is a former federal prosecutor.

CHICK FORET: This is the classic public corruption quid pro quo case, where it is alleged that the mayor, while he was in office and after he was out of office - he got certain gratuities, and large sums of gratuities, in return for city contracts, many of which were no-bid contracts - professional services contracts, consultants.

ELLIOTT: Ray Nagin, who now lives in Texas, has said little since his indictment. His lawyer, Robert Jenkins, has not returned NPR's calls for comment. But speaking to New Orleans television station WWL after a court hearing last week, Jenkins downplayed the case.

ROBERT JENKINS: It seems like a big trial for you all. But it's just a trial, and a jury's going to make their decision. So it's not as big as people trying to make it seem.

ELLIOTT: Legal observers, including Loyola University Law professor Dane Ciolino, say Nagin has an uphill battle in court, given the number of former friends who are expected to take the witness stand against him.

DANE CIOLINO: He is, in order to prevail, going to have to convince these jurors that not one or two or three, but four, five or six witnesses are all lying in an effort to further their own goals and to lessen their own sentences. That's a tough order for any criminal defendant.

ELLIOTT: Jury selection is to begin today, but court watchers say it's never too late for a plea agreement to avoid trial.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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