Fate Of Former New Orleans Mayor Now In Jury's Hands

The jury has begun deliberations in the federal corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Nagin is accused of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from businessmen in exchange for steering city business their way after Hurricane Katrina. NPR's Debbie Elliott was in court on Monday and speaks to host Robert Siegel about the day's developments.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. The fate of the former mayor of New Orleans is now in the hands of a jury. Ray Nagin is accused of using his public position for personal financial gain. Nagin is a Democrat. He became known worldwide as the face of city government when Hurricane Katrina struck. He held office for two terms. NPR's Debbie Elliot was in federal court today to hear closing arguments in this case and she joins us now.

And Debbie, what's the government's case against Nagin?

DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: Well, he's facing 21 counts, including bribery, conspiracy and money laundering. And prosecutors have basically laid out a series of 10 alleged pay-off schemes where they say Nagin helped steer lucrative city contracts to certain businessmen in exchange for all sorts of gifts. There was money. There were checks that went into certain accounts and businesses of his.

There were gifts, lawn care, free travel, trips to Jamaica, to New York, to Vegas. Even free slabs of granite for his family's countertop business. And during closing arguments today, prosecutor Richard Pickens portrayed Nagin as a mayor on the take who, quote, "used the power of his position to hit up city contractors when the contractors needed him most."

Now, Robert, that includes that busy rebuilding period just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

SIEGEL: And how has Ray Nagin responded to those charges?

ELLIOT: Well, he denies any wrongdoing and, in fact, he took the witness stand in his own defense. At times, he was combative with the federal prosecutors and at times, he got very folksy trying to connect with the jury. Nagin says he was never really actively involved in the city's contracting decisions, that it was city lawyers and others on his staff who handled all those nitty-gritty details.

And when he was questioned, for instance, about money that contractors gave his family's granite business, he said, you know, that was a legitimate investment. They were investing in this business. That was not a bribe. Today, when a federal prosecutor accused Nagin of hiding behind, quote, "bribes, lies and excuses," you could actually sort of see Nagin reacting. His head sort of shook back and forth and his shoulder twitched a bit. It almost was like a boxer winding up for a punch.

SIEGEL: But Debbie, jurors are just beginning their deliberations today after about two weeks of testimony in the Nagin case. What's your sense of what this case is likely to hinge on?

ELLIOT: Well, it's going to come down to who the jury believes. Much of the government's case is dependent on five witnesses who took the stand and said they bribed Ray Nagin. Well, all five of them have either pleaded guilty or been convicted already. Defense lawyer Robert Jenkins says they have no credibility. They cut deals with the feds, he said, that means that the federal government controls their destiny. Why wouldn't they lie? Why wouldn't they offer up Ray Nagin?

So in some ways, it will come down to Nagin's word against theirs, along with the documents that were put into evidence. There were some signed contracts, some checks, some travel rosters that the government used to bolster its case. So the jury will have to sort of weigh what works for them and they're under a lot of pressure as acknowledged by the judge. You know, just before they left for deliberations, she told them, you know, this is secret and you will never have to explain your verdict to anyone.

SIEGEL: And how would you describe the significance of this trial in New Orleans?

ELLIOT: Well, it's big for a number of reasons. First of all, this is the first time a mayor has been charged with federal corruption. There have been public officials, certainly, on trial, but never before a mayor. And this particular mayor, he campaigned as an outsider, as a business man who would clean up city hall so there was much frustration at the end of this second term in 2010 just about the allegations of corruption surrounding his administration and also the frustration with the pace of the recovery after Hurricane Katrina.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Debbie.

ELLIOT: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Debbie Elliot in New Orleans.

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