Saturday, May 17, 2014

by Maniko Barthelemy

Jefferson Parish Celebrates Alternative Drug Sentencing Program

For a brief moment, judges, ex-offenders, parole officers and politicians were all smiles, happy to be around each other. “This is about saving people’s lives, about making sure no one gets left behind and everyone has an opportunity to be a productive member of society,” said Jefferson Parish President, John Young.

Young and nearly 60 people enjoyed a Drug Court Rally, May 15, outside of the Jefferson Parish Juvenile Court Center. The program was one of many around the country celebrating “National Drug Court Month.”
With the emotional testimonies from graduates of the parish’s program and praise from politicians it felt like a joyful church service. One Gretna teenager ecstatic about being included in the festivities and determined to continue his clean and sober road got a standing ovation. “I turned to God and begged him to show me the way, said Philip Long.”

Long, 17, landed in front of a judge in 2013, after his addiction to painkillers spiraled out of control. Instead of being sentenced to time behind bars, Long got a break and slowly regained control of his life. He credits the 12-month court ordered strict intervention with his renewed sense of self-respect and ambition. “I’ve written songs and I think I want to be a journalist,’ said Long.

Court mandated drug treatment is rigorous. It includes frequent drug testing, sobriety meetings, unannounced visits from probation officers and family therapy. For adults, the intervention program is 18 months.

A Gretna woman told the crowd the drug court sentence scared her straight. “I wasn’t fit for jail and I knew I wouldn’t last,” said 39-year-old Natalie Parfait. For nearly 10 years, Parfait bounced between marijuana and heroin, neglecting her family. In 2011, her fast world and drug addiction collided, with tough love from a judge. “I was facing two to 28 years in prison and I was pregnant,” said Parfait. “I was standing there praying for a chance.” Today, she is healthy and happy to spend her days as a personal fitness trainer and her nights being a mother to her children.

Parfait and Long are two of the 500 Jefferson Parish Drug Court success stories over the parish’s 17 years of alternatively dealing with people who commit nonviolent crimes to support their habits. The adult system was put in place in 1997, followed by the juvenile program in 1998. Initially, grants and private donations kept the system afloat. Today, the Louisiana Supreme Court funds the program through earmarked revenue.

The rally marked the 25th anniversary of National Drug Court Month. The concept of drug courts was launched in Miami in 1989 to ease crowded criminal courtrooms and prisons. Every state has a drug court program. Experts point to the cost savings and success as reasons why it’s a viable solution. Critics see it as going soft on crime. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Festival Hits High Note with Entertainers and Entrepreneurs

by Maniko Barthelemy

It's the one place in the world where you'll always find peculiar entertainment. New Orleans is always festive, hot, humid and full of high notes from musicians imitated but never duplicated. In Louis Armstrong Park, named in honor of one of the city’s most beloved musicians, it’s time again for a festival unlike most in the city.

“Jazz in the Park,” a free music festival offering a gumbo of artists that are popular local favorites and who have traveled the world shining an international microscope on their talents, kicked off its fifth season, April 17. Every Thursday, 4 p.m. – 7 p.m., until June 2, the hypnotic sound of great free concerts, affordable, unforgettable food, and unique handcrafted souvenirs will welcome thousands.  “A lot of people forgot about this park,” said ????, referring to the years the park set abandoned, following Hurricane Katrina.

On this cool and perfectly calm day, there was no hint of sadness. A New Orleans second-line parade set the tone. High-steppers from the Sudan Social Aid and Pleasure Club, wearing red and yellow flashy costumes, jubilantly danced around the park, to hypnotic tunes blaring from a brass band’s horns complimented by thunderous beats from the drum, and of course people smiled, took photos and joined in on the fun.  “We don’t practice our dance moves because it’s just in our blood,” said Wendell Carter, a member of the Sudan Social Aid & Pleasure Club.

5th Ward Weebie Works the Crowd with his song "Let Me Find Out."
The dancing moved from the park’s entrance to center stage when local rapper, 5th Ward Weebie took the microphone. Weebie seemed like a choir director with his call-and-response style. He barely got a word out before the crowd began clapping their hands, dancing and shouting the hook to “Let Me Find Out,” the artist’s latest hit song. The lyrics are laced with crass criticism, jokes at the expense of others, and quite honestly will cause you to move your hips and chuckle a few times. “It’s a self-check song for people who love to talk about other people but know they have their own issues,” said Weebie. To see 5th Ward Weebie’s video of “Let Me Find Out,” visit YouTube,

The next artist who electrified fans with his testimony, raspy voice, and bold declarations was Glen David Andrews. He’s a member of the almost uniquely unbelievably talented and gifted Andrews family. The Andrews clan is as respected and adored musically as the Jacksons. Andrews joyfully entertained everyone with highlights from “Redemption,” his newest CD. It’s a rousing candid lyrical road trip into his life, giving fans all of the ups, downs and turnarounds that have landed his album on the top 40 jazz charts within the last week.  

Andrews launched onto the stage clapping his hands, dancing and bobbing his head easing into  “Movin' Up.” The song reconfirms his renewed love of self, appreciation of his family, fans, and celebration of his career’s rebirth. Here’s a glimpse of Andrews performing “Movin Up,”

Robert Piazza, owner of Bayou Leather and Jewelry, stands near his special hand-designed beer holsters
Musicians aren’t the only ones who welcome the invitation to be part of Jazz in the Park. Robert Piazza owns Bayou Leather and Jewelry. He’s one of more than a dozen vendors at the festival. “We sell a lot of our merchandise but the best thing about this is it's unlike other festivals because it’s two seasons, lasts about eight weeks in the spring and again in the fall, so we meet people from around the world,” said Piazza.

Maniko Barthelemy grabs a strawberry snowball at Jazz in the Park
People from around the world looking to get their hands on something cool, like crushed ice drowned in sweet syrup, stop by and visit the festival's unofficial cooling station. “I have the best snowballs in the state,” said Aquanette (Ackie) Singleton, owner of Mrs. Ackie & Keimika Snoballs, Food and Catering Service. Singleton sells hundreds of the cold cups but another big hit is her twist on cheesy nachos, topping them off with jalapeƱo peppers and spicy crawfish. Give her a call for your next event, (504) 250-4996.
Crawfish Nachos by Mrs. Ackie & Keimika Snoballs, Food and  Catering Service
Jazz in the Park is every Thursday until June 5. Here’s a look at the festival’s schedule, Every week you'll see at least two live bands with a little lagniappe sliced in as a special treat. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Professionals Party with an Impact

Non-profit New Orleans Group Rewards Community and Business Owners

by Maniko Barthelemy

Hundreds of children who learn to swim in New Orleans show up wearing shorts and an old T-shirt. When they're lessons are over, the children use grocery store bags instead of waterproof bags to store their wet clothes. You have the power to bring a smile to a child's face and paint a different picture.

Getty Images Internet Photo

Maniko Barthelemy and all of her friends who own businesses in New Orleans invite you to join them for a special poolside event that blends networking and philanthropy. Take a look at the flyer and make sure you register for the free party directly via Eventbrite, ,by the April 17 deadline.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Orleans Man Stars in "12 Years a Slave"

by Maniko Barthelemy

Parker, Rob Steinberg's Character Confronts Slave Owner in "12 Years a Slave"
It’s Hollywood’s Cinderella story from conception to cast and completion. “12 Years a Slave” may have shocked the world by winning three Oscars; Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, (Lupita Nyong'o) and Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley).  After months of chatter, controversy and comparisons to “Roots” the ‘70s television miniseries based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel and films like “The Butler” and “DJango Unchained,” “12 Years” is in a distinguished league of films. It is indeed a Hollywood script but because you know it’s based on a true story, it undeniably leaves a mark on your heart and mind.

You empathize with a man whose life unravels from a treasured American dream to a terrifying American horror story.  “A lot of my friends can’t watch it because it’s a difficult subject matter and they don’t want to relive the subject matter,” says Rob Steinberg.

Steinberg plays Parker, a shopkeeper, in the film. Parker is a friend and savior of sorts for the main character, Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Northrup, a free man and respected New York musician is scammed, kidnapped, sold to plantations over 12 years and renamed Platt Hamilton. From New York to Washington, D.C., Georgia and finally Louisiana, Solomon’s hell seems never-ending. “My agent called me about the audition. I didn’t do a lot of discovery but we put it on tape and got a call to read for the director,” says Steinberg.
Steinberg is used to lights, camera and action. The Tulane University graduate hit the entertainment business during the late ‘80s. “I started out in the music business as a manager,” says Steinberg. His transition from one entertainment career to another came in 1989. “I started taking classes in LA, got a few parts in stage plays and then my career starting picking up when I moved to New Orleans four years ago,” said Steinberg.
His most recent role is likely the most unforgettable. After seeing Steinberg’s taped audition, executives wanted him to audition live for the director, Steve McQueen. To project the best passionate connection to Parker, Steinberg read the book, which chronicles the true story of Northrup’s turbulent and cruel life as a slave. Despite despair, Northrup worked, waited and prayed the truth would come out. “I knew a lot about slavery but I didn’t know there were bands of men around the country kidnapping free people into slavery,” says Steinberg. To understand the director’s style, Steinberg watched several of McQueen’s previous films.
He got the part. The first day onset Steinberg got a jolt of emotions he didn’t expect. “Walking on-set and seeing people in the period costumes, does something to you. You’re certainly not just acting and you definitely want to get it right,” says Steinberg.
The Louisiana-shot film went from creation to completion in 30 days. It will make you cringe, cry and cheer by the time the rollercoaster ends. After years of failed attempts at regaining his freedom by detailing his captivity in letters but being betrayed by people he thought sincerely wanted to help right a wrong, Northup gets a break. While working on a Louisiana plantation he meets Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt. Bass doesn’t like slavery, believes Northrup’s heartbreaking story and takes a chance. He secretly carries letters from Northup to his friends and family in New York.
Parker gets one of the letters and goes to New Orleans to bring Northup home. “There’s that powerful scene at the end where he (Solomon) returns to his family in New York tearfully apologizes for his appearance. We shot four or five takes with me in the room but they were so powerful my character in the scene seemed odd, so we cut it out,” says Steinberg.
On the heels of the success “12 Years,” Steinberg says his work is growing in an impressive direction. He has roles in several independent movies set for release this year and is sharing the small screen on the soap opera “The Young & The Restless.”

“12 Years” released in October 2013 cost $20 million to make and has so far earned $158 million in box office ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.  

Share your thoughts on “12 Years” by leaving us a comment or e-mailing Maniko Barthelemy at

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mardi Gras Krewe Has Tradition of BYOF & BYOD

by Maniko Barthelemy

It's a Mardi Gras Krewe rich in tradition, at many events members wear elaborate costumes and give back to the community sporadically. The New Orleans Zulu Krewe started in 1909 as the only African-American Mardi Gras Krewe. Today it's more diverse but remains unique in its approach to celebrating the biggest free party in the world. Tickets to this year's highly anticipated ball, which dubs as a fundraiser for the Krewe cost $100 each. While the headlining entertainment is as impressive as the venue, the sold out 2014 Krewe ball is the only Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans where you pay for a seat at a table and two things are missing, if you don't bring your own food and drinks, you won't get either as part of your experience.

What are your thoughts? Are you attending the ball? Would you be willing to pay more for you ticket with food and drinks included in the price?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Nagin Awaits Sentencing, Faces Decades Behind Bars

by Maniko Barthelemy
The next time Clarence Ray Nagin enters a federal courtroom in New Orleans, he’ll find out exactly when he’ll become an inmate and lose his name for a prison issued number. A jury found the ex-New Orleans Mayor guilty of 20 out of 21 federal charges including everything from tax evasion to wire fraud, money laundering and corruption. The charges stem from a 2009 federal investigation into Nagin’s office, during his 2006 -2010 tenure as mayor. The one charge of bribery where Nagin was found not guilty centered on a $10,000 cash bribe Rodney Williams, a convicted felon, said his partners gave to Nagin’s sons, Jeremy and Jarin.
Clarence Ray Nagin leaves federal court quiet, after a jury finds him guilty of 20 out of 21 charges
Nagin, 57, stared blankly and looked detached as the verdict was read in a packed courtroom, Feb. 12. His wife, Seletha Nagin was comforted by two women, as she rocked slowly and cried. As he left the courthouse with his family members and legal team, Nagin, who as mayor was often charismatic and blunt at a podium, was silent as reporters blurted out questions about the verdict.
Nagin faces 14 to 40 years behind bars. For nearly two weeks federal prosecutors mapped out their case against Nagin through a combination of witness testimony by IRS agents, former Nagin staffers, and business associates, supported by copies of text messages, e-mails, photos and Nagin calendar discrepancies. The evidence pointed to more than $500,000 in gifts, lavish vacations, services and cash to Nagin, in exchange for illegally awarding city construction contracts worth millions to select businessmen. “He took an oath twice to serve the people but served himself,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney, Matt Coman.

Robert Jenkins, Nagin’s attorney, routinely reminded the jury the government’s star witnesses like Rodney Williams, Frank Fradella, and Michael McGrath, all of which testified they bribed Nagin, were convicted felons who only testified as part of a plea deal. “All of those guys have something to gain from the government by taking the stand against Mr. Nagin,” said Jenkins.

In a move to further convince the jury of his client’s innocence, Jenkins called Nagin to the stand. For two days, Nagin spent more than 12 hours denying all charges against him and dismissing any questionable relationships between contractors, cash flow and Stone Age, LLC, a granite business Nagin owned with his sons. While cool, calm and collected during questioning by Jenkins, Nagin became unraveled, uninterested and his demeanor at times, nearly unbelievable during cross examination. At one point, Nagin leaned back, stretched out his arms, looked at Coman and said “look man, I’m trying to give you what you want but I don’t know what you want. It’s hard for me to sit here and listen to all of these allegations.”

After the trial, jurors told media outlets, the evidence was convincing, credibility of the government’s witnesses like Fradella and Williams was questionable but Nagin had his own issues. One juror said Nagin’s testimony was unforgettable because he seemed defiant and reluctant to admit or regret anything.

Nagin is scheduled to be sentenced June 11, the day he turns 58. He’ll get a birthday present no one wants and prepare to spend several years in a place no one wants to go. Meantime, Nagin is under house arrest at his home in Dallas and must wear an ankle-monitoring device.

Nagin, a former Cox Cable executive served two terms as mayor in New Orleans. He was elected to office in 2002 and re-elected in 2006. He ran as a Democrat and promised to rid New Orleans of a long-standing embarrassing reputation of corrupt politicians. Nagin gained international fame for passionately scolding government officials, for procrastinating recovery efforts in New Orleans, during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Deliberations Halted in Nagin Corruption Trial

by Maniko Barthelemy

Will a jury of seven men and five women find ex-New Orleans Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin guilty or not guilty? Nagin has to wait a little longer to find out the answer that will instantly change his life. The jury in the federal government's corruption trial against Nagin, resumes deliberations Wednesday morning. A juror was unable to make it to court this morning and no further details were given to the media. Monday, shortly after closing arguments in the case, the jury deliberated about two hours before going home.

Nagin faces 21 indictments, including wire fraud, corruption, bribery, and money laundering. If convicted he could spend nearly two decades in federal prison.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Nagin Trial Heads to Closing Arguments

by Maniko Barthelemy

Was it the best or worst decision of his life? In a matter of days, ex-New Orleans Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin finds out if taking the stand in the government’s corruption case against him helped or hurt his defense. Nagin faces at least 20 years in prison, if found guilty of bribery, money laundering, fraud, tax evasion, and a number of other charges that add up to a 21-count indictment and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of free travel, cash and granite to support Stone Age, LLC, his family business. Friday, after spending nearly eight hours on the stand answering and deflecting questions from assistant U.S. Attorney, Matthew Coman, Nagin returned to the defendant’s table saying “thank you Jesus.”

Monday morning, Robert Jenkins will reiterate his client’s innocence. Jenkins has been holding steady to focusing on the credibility of the government's witnesses, the absence of any video tapes, wires or other hard evidence that shows Nagin is unquestionably guilty. “He may have done something unethical but not criminal,” said Jenkins. Coman is expected to highlight what the government sees as a strong case for a conviction. “They wanted his power and he wanted their money,” said Cowman, to the jury, the first day of the trial. He maintains Nagin’s questionable tax reporting, slick business deals, testimony from IRS agents, the corroborating testimony of men who are now convicted felons but used to enjoy the relationship with Nagin and its rewards of millions of dollars in city contracts, as well as questionable business deals involving Nagin’s sons Jeremy and Jarin, all point to one conclusion; guilty.
For nearly two weeks, the trial has been a tale of two Nagin’s. From the perspectives of those who worked closely with him as city employees and those the government charges conspired with him, the jury has a lot to sort out. Nagin spent two days on the stand denying accepting bribes, blaming any tax reporting issues on his accountant, explaining how his personal family outings blurred the lines a lot between city business and pleasure. “Do you ever plan to accept responsibility for your actions?” asked Coman. “I always take responsibility for things,” Nagin replied.
Nagin, a Democrat, served from 2002-2010. Many of the people in the packed courtroom were voters who said they came to the trial because they felt disappointed and wanted to see if he had any remorse. “It’s a shame he ran on a platform of change and we really believed he was different but in the end it looks like he became corrupt,” said a man who didn’t want to be identified.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Nagin Faces Corruption Charges, Takes Stand

byManiko Barthelemy
In a few days a jury decides if ex-New Orleans Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin convinced them he’s innocent. Today, Nagin took the stand in a federal court room in New Orleans. The 57-year-old faces a 21-count indictment of fraud, tax evasion and corruption. Under direct examination by his attorney, Robert Jenkins, Nagin was cool, calm and collected. Jenkins moved quickly from Nagin’s career as a Cox Cable executive to becoming mayor and the core of the government’s case. “I’ve heard a lot in this case that don’t make sense,” said Nagin.

The government alleges, during Nagin’s second term as mayor, 2006-2010, he became too close to select city contractors, ultimately blurred clear cut lines between city business, personal business, finances and favors. The toxic mix of what some witnesses called a pay-to-play political climate in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina paved the road for millions of dollars in city contracts to go to a handful of pre-selected companies, specifically Three Fold Consultants, LLC and Home Solutions of America (HSOA). The companies were linked to deposits and deals with Stone Age, LLC a granite company in New Orleans owned and operated by the ex-Mayor and his sons, Jeremy and Jarin Nagin. Nagin said he only bank rolled the business to help his sons get started. “I was mainly the financier and I told them I would keep my investment down to about $10,000 a year,” said Nagin.
Rodney Williams seen leaving the federal courthouse in New Orleans
Rodney Williams, Tarek Elnaggar and Bassam Mekari owned Three Fold Consultants, LLC. Earlier in the trial, Williams, who was the government’s first witness, said at a meeting in January 2008, Nagin told him he was “tapped out,” referencing the financial struggles of Stone Age, LLC, a granite company Nagin owned with his sons, Jeremy and Jarin. “He said it sure would be nice if he had $60, 000,” said Williams. Within hours, Williams gave Stone Age three $20,000 checks, each written by Williams, Elnaggar and Mekari. Shortly after the checks cleared, Three Fold Consultants became a city contractor. Nagin said the $60, 000 was an investment in Stone Age, LLC, not a bribe. Documents presented in court showed the sale of shares of Stone Age, LLC stock in Jan. 2008 to a company called BRT Investment. The company, however, was not registered in Louisiana until March. “We did that as a cover-up,” said Williams.
The government showed evidence, over a two year period, Three Fold, LLC went from earning a little more than $120,000 to $2.6 million. A healthy portion of their business was tied to city contracts. “I had no authority on selecting them,” said Nagin. Brenda Hatfield, a former city administrator, testified Nagin signed an executive order that stripped a screening board of its authority to recommend or reject city contractors and the decision became the mayor’s exclusively. Williams plead guilty to bribery in 2010 and is awaiting sentencing.
Internet Photo of Frank Fradella
Frank Fradella owned Home Solutions of America. His company, once headquartered in Texas, relocated to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. From 2007 through 2010 Fradella worked in overdrive to secure millions of dollars in business for HSOA. A potential for a NASCAR track to come to New Orleans caught his attention. The project would have been profitable at least five years after the track was completed, it failed. He pursued a multi-million dollar deal to turn an old Entergy building into a mixed-use facility of condos and strip malls. It failed. Fradella, with the help of mayor Nagin vouching for HSOA at a meeting with investors, was able to get a $40 million credit line for his company. “We took them on a tour of the city and they were very impressed with all of the work that could go on and the mayor told them we were good for it,” said Fradella. Fradella maintains as a show of gratitude, he’d often treat Nagin to trips or in at least one time, gave Stone Age a $50,000 check. “It was a bribe,” said Fradella.
Nagin said Fradella and Williams lied about the money they gave Stone Age. He minimized his contact with Fradella as an alternative form of possible financing development in the city when government red tape was slowing progress. Fradella sent Nagin an e-mail claiming he could raise $250 million - $500 million. “I talked to him a lot because we had a huge problem trying to get federal dollars to the city after Hurricane Katrina and he was a business man who wanted to help get private dollars to the city,” said Nagin.
When Federal Prosecutor, Matthew Cowman cross-examined Nagin, the defendant’s tone transitioned to defiant, evasive and guarded. Nagin danced around answers to the Coman’s questions related to everything from confirming his signature on legal documents to personally knowing Williams, Fradella or Mark St. Pierre, the source of many lavish vacations and other gifts Nagin received. Collectively the gifts netted to six-figure omissions from his 2007-2010 tax records.
Cowman continues cross-examining Nagin, Friday. Judge Ginger Berrigan said the trail should be over by early next week. Depending on the verdict, Nagin taking the stand may turn out to be the best or the worst decision of his life. He could spend up to 20 years in prison, if found guilty.
What do you think about Nagin taking the stand?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

First Witness in Nagin Corruption Trial Outlines Pay-to-Play Politics

by Maniko Barthelemy

How do you go from grossing $120,000 in business contracts to more than $2.6 million in three years? The answer, as one man put it is all about connections and $70,000 in bribes. “The mayor said he’d take care of it and he did,” said Rodney Williams, the former president of Three Fold Consultants, a New Orleans engineering firm.
Williams, a star witness for the federal government, is facing three years in prison for pleading guilty to bribing ex-New Orleans Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin. To ensure the jury took every word he spoke seriously, throughout his 90-minutes on the stand, Williams routinely looked directly at the jury as he clarified why, where and how he paid to play politics in New Orleans. “We felt that was our way of getting in and doing more city contracts,” said Williams. From 2007 through 2011, Williams was granted lucrative no-bid construction contracts he said were tied directly to his payments to Nagin.

The prosecution believes their case for a conviction is solid. In addition to outlining facts, figures, and connecting the dots leading from the mayor’s office to witnesses like Williams, they expect testimony of convicted contractor Frank Fradella, as well as Nagin's former Chief Technology Officer, Greg Meffert, will prove Nagin’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. “It’s time for the defendant to be held personally accountable for his own criminal conduct,” said assistant U.S. attorney, Matthew Coman.
The 21-count indictment against Nagin charges him with tax fraud, wire fraud, and corruption, totaling more than $300,000 in kickbacks. Robert Jenkins, Nagin’s attorney, told jurors the former mayor gave full financial disclosure in all of his tax documents and any mistakes that may appear suspicious, fall at the hands of Nagin’s accountant. As for the government’s reliability on star witnesses, Jenkins sees them as a glimpse into a weak case. “The case fails because there is a credibility issue,” said Jenkins. “All these guys have baggage and they need help from the government.”

Both sides continue proving their case Friday morning. Williams returns to the stand where he’ll be cross examined by Jenkins. He’s thankful part of this serious phase of his legal troubles is almost finished. “I’ve done something I’m not proud of and it’s been a long time dealing with it and I didn’t want to prolong it,” said Williams. “I’m glad it’s over.”

The case is expected to last nearly three weeks. Nine white men, four white women, one African-American woman and two Asian men make up the 16-member jury, which includes four alternate jurors.







Jury Takes Seat, First Witness Testifies in Nagin Corruption Trial

by Maniko Barthelemy

How do you grow from earning $120,000 to $2.5M in three years? Rodney Williams, said the answer comes down to bribing a mayor. Williams is the first witness to take the stand in the Clarence Ray Nagin trial. The full recap of what happened in court is coming later. What would you do?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Jury Screened First Day of Nagin Corruption Trial

by Maniko Barthelemy

Internet Photo of Clarence Ray Nagin, Former New Orleans Mayor
Former New Orleans Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin, who calls Dallas home, is a different man. His confident stride and charismatic body language is gone. Nagin walks with what appears to be a painful limp and he’s back in the city where he was once the boss, only this time Nagin’s a defendant. Nearly 60 potential jurors in the federal government’s corruption trial against Nagin were screened Monday. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berriga asked the men and women, identified only by jury numbers, about their perception of politicians, professional careers and relationship if any to Nagin.

During the lunch rush at Lucy’s restaurant, a few blocks away from the federal courthouse in downtown New Orleans, the Nagin trial was a hot topic. Some said the former mayor’s legal woes continue to hurt New Orleans’ reputation, as the city continues to struggle rebuilding, since Hurricane Katrina. “I remember there was a lot of hope in the city when he was elected,” said Fred Fournet. “A lot of people thought he was really going to be the kind of change we needed to give us a clean slate and it’s unfortunate and if he’s guilty, he should go to jail.”

The 57-year-old who went from cable network management to New Orleans mayor in 2002, is on trial for allegedly orchestrating pay to play politics system, from 2002-2010. The stakes are high. The government’s 21-count indictment accuses Nagin of pocketing more than $300,000 in bribes, a combination of cash, gifts and products from business owners, in exchange for lucrative contracts in the city.
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Ray for Southern Belle Productions
Nagin and his attorney Robert Jenkins were tightlipped but the case is in-depth. A City Hall corruption investigation lead to the charges and some of  Nagin’s associates and aides on the government’s witness list of 45 people have either been convicted or plead guilty as part of a plea deal.

The final jury selection from the pool of 60 will consist of 12 members plus four alternates. Experts predict a jury will be seated Wednesday.  The courthouse is closed Tuesday due to an arctic blast bringing freezing rain to throughout Louisiana. The trial could last up to three weeks.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Entrepreneurs Leave Unfulfilled Jobs for Unique Venture

by Maniko Barthelemy

From strip malls to swanky retail outlets, you have likely had a manicure or pedicure. Every year, with the precision of a brain surgeon, completely focused on finishing in a 30-minute window or less time frame, nail technicians at seemingly countless shops across the country, glue, cut, shape and file and style hands, using fake finger nails, cash-in on a nearly $8 billion industry. According to Nails Magazine, it’s no secret the pampering service that spread across the country in the ‘90s is nearly dominated by Asian business owners.
NOLA Nail Bar Owners Enter Crowded Industry
The statistics don’t intimidate two New Orleans women. Nalo Johnson and Tiffany Woods are opening the doors to NOLA Nail Bar, Saturday, Jan. 25 at 5 p.m. They are jumping in the fiercely competitive industry, determined to stand out and succeed. “People can expect a lot of good food, fun and a short tour of our nail salon,” said Green. Woods and Johnson refer to themselves as manicurist, not nail techs. “Onyxologist is the proper term for what we do because it specifically focuses on natural nail-grooming,” said Woods. Both are certified manicurists in Louisiana.

The uptown cozy business, at 8710 Oak St. distinguishes itself with a combination of quality customer service and a VIP atmosphere. How many nail salons offer guests Mimosas or a glass of wine, comfortable thick leather chairs, while massaging the client’s hands and feet? “I knew we could do it because we have the same work ethic and passion,” said Johnson.
photo courtesy of NOLA Nail Bar
There are no drills that resemble a thick metal pens, hard files, fake nails, glue or other commonly used products at other nail salons. “We’re not trying to do the assembly service that’s so common in this industry,” said Johnson. Basic, bizarre or bold designs come naturally to the unofficial nail gurus but they routinely surf the Internet, flip through trade magazines and articles to stay on target, as trends change quickly, in almost microwave fashion.
The vision to venture into the entrepreneurial world is the result of Woods and Johnson feeling professionally and creatively unfulfilled. “I was working as a cell phone sales rep and I hated moving around to different stores,” said Johnson. Woods thought her calling was in education but the uncertainty and constant bureaucracy in the field shredded her interest, after working a few years. “I had to sit down and think about what I really liked to do and I’ve been doing nails since I was in high school,” said Woods.
photo courtesy of NOLA Nail Bar
A chance meeting at a spa in Atlanta in 2006 quickly evolved into a friendship and a business partnership. “The first day we met we were both so excited because we were from New Orleans,” said Woods. “We hugged and that was it and in a strange twist, we realized we’d grown up two miles away from each other.”

They recognize and embrace the relief of finally operating in their passion and feel successful one client at a time. “It’s a blessing to have a career where you bring smiles to people’s faces,” said Woods.

For more information, you can reach them on Facebook at or call (855) 504-7334.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Famous Singer Gives Neighborhood Eyesore Overdue Extreme Makeover

by Maniko Barthelemy

Like film production companies strategically plan the release of blockbuster films around holidays, an award-winning New Orleans trumpeter and singer hit grand opening gold when he re-opened the doors of a landmark. “I kept trying to figure out when to open and I picked MLK day because it’s one of the most important holidays in the world,” said Kermit Ruffins.
Kermit Ruffins is all smiles at the grand opening of his "Kermit's Treme' Mother-In-Law Lounge." Photo courtesy of Kim Welsh
Ruffins is one of the founding members of the Grammy award-winning Rebirth Brass Band and leads his highly popular jazz/swing band, Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers. On Jan. 20, he officially opened “Kermit’s Treme’ Mother-in-Law Lounge,” his third New Orleans bar. A parade of brass bands played for hours, as hundreds of family, friends, and fans packed the cozy Treme neighborhood staple, waving and clapping their hands, smiling and capturing the moment on cell phones. “The place looks beautiful,” said Justin Trimm. “This shows Kermit has a love and respect for the history of this neighborhood,” said Trimm.  
Washington Post Photo
The building’s significance at 1500 N. Claiborne Avenue dates back to 1994. Ernie K-Doe, one of New Orleans’ most flamboyant rhythm and blues singers opened the club for musicians and the community. K-Doe’s career spiked with a bold 1961 song, “Mother-in-Law.” The mega-hit put K-Doe on an international stage While he enjoyed meteoric rise to fame, K-Doe’s awe and respect for local musicians inspired him to open the “Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge.”  “I remember the great stories my dad told me about this place,” said Trimm.
The lounge was an open stage for local musicians who often free-styled with each other and treated customers to unscheduled jam sessions. K-Doe, the self-appointed “emperor of the world” died in 2001. His widow, Antoinette, kept the doors open for several years. In 2009, she died, leaving the lounge in the hands of her daughter, Betty Fox. Financial challenges and the hovering pressure of living up to her mother’s reputation put a strain on Fox and stressed the overall operation of the lounge. The sound of New Orleans music often heard at the neighborhood hot spot went silent in 2010, when the lounge closed. “I used to pass here and see it was abandoned and I was lucky to be able to pay a lease and make it happen,” said Ruffins.
From 2011 to 2014, Ruffins cleared legal and logistical hurdles, remodeled the building and heavily promoted his plans. The reward and relief were symbolic of an overdue family reunion, complete with music, food and fun. The grand opening was so lively nearly 50 people couldn’t get inside to jam. In typical New Orleans fashion, the overflow crowd turned the sidewalk into an extended party. Well-wishers swayed, jumped and shouted to the hypnotic sounds flowing out of the lounge. Many applauded Ruffins’ commitment to giving an eyesore an extreme makeover.  “Everything Kermit touches is successful. He has the personality and the drive to make things work and it’s great to see he’s the guy who turned this building back into something that’s going to thrive,” said Mark Samuels, president of Basin St. Records.
Financially reinvesting in a neighborhood often overlooked and unappreciated is not foreign to Ruffins. He owns Bullets Lounge, which sits in the 7th Ward of New Orleans and is just as popular as his other Treme restaurant and bar, Kermit Ruffins’ Speakeasy. Ruffins knows his awards, raspy Louis Armstrong-like voice and reputation as an advocate for musicians, pull people wherever appears but he’s  keenly aware of the reality of a fickle business, after the nostalgia wears off. “The grand opening is the easy part because everybody comes out, next week no one may come out but I’ll see what happens in a year,” said Ruffins.
What do you think about the re-opening of the Mother-in-Law Lounge? E-mail your response directly to Maniko Barthelemy at or comment directly on this page.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Actor Goes Off-Script, Reaches Tough Teens

New Episode Airs Tonight, 10 p.m. eastern on FX 

by Maniko Barthelemy

When seven million people tune-in every week to watch witches, revenge, and Greek mythology with a splash of painful American history in the midst, it’s a sign.  “American Horror Story: Coven has hypnotized a horror thirsty audience. Back to close its third season and on the heels of an announcement by FX that American Horror Story is returning for a fourth season later this year,  tonight’s premiere episode will surely take loyal viewers and newcomers on a suspenseful horror-filled ride. The show, is co-creator, Ryan Murphy’s dream and vision. It’s definitely not for the weak at heart or those of you with a weak stomach. Sex, lies, violence, Witchcraft, Voodoo, Greek mythology, love and hate set in New Orleans, all sizzle on-screen.
Photo courtesy of Ameer Baraka
New Orleans actor, Ameer Baraka, 35, is a striking character on the show, half man and half bull. “I auditioned four times for that role,” said Baraka. As Minotaur Baraka is voodoo and New Orleans legend, Marie Laveau’s lover (played by Angela Bassett). Kathy Bates is Delphine LaLaurie, an infamous socialite who committed unspeakable crimes against her slaves. “I’m in the company of people like Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett and that’s like taking an accelerated acting class because they are excellent at what they do,” said Baraka. 
Ameer Baraka in character as Minotaur in American Horror Story: Coven (Production still courtesy of Ameer Baraka)
Minotaur speaks very little in the show. He is chained, tortured and mocked periodically. LaLaurie uses him to bait and torment Laveau. It’s evil versus evil. Baraka enjoys the challenges, ratings rewards, lights, camera and action onset. Off script, he’s busy in a much more profound role. “I didn’t learn how to read until I was 19 and in prison,” said Baraka. “One of the inmates, his family used to send him books and he taught me algebra and how to read, so I started studying the dictionary using any free time I had to read books.”
Photo courtesy of Jeff Ray
Baraka spent four years in prison for selling drugs, the result of growing up in a family where he was misunderstood and marginalized. “I had a severe case of dyslexia and instead of trying to help me, my family would call me stupid and dumb,” said Baraka. Acting in school plays worked momentarily as a disguise. “I couldn’t read but I knew how to act like a clown, so I played that every chance I got,” said Baraka. Reality was much harder to ignore. At 13, he became a drug dealer.  “I couldn’t compete at school and I wasn’t being encouraged at home,” said Baraka.

Guilt and regret motivate Baraka to help teens most people try to avoid. “A lot of kids in trouble in New Orleans can’t read but I want them to know they can do something about it” said Baraka. He visits a New Orleans youth detention center at least twice a week, speaks at alternative schools, and follows-up with kids released from detention centers. “The streets lied to me and the same lies are being pumped into the minds of talented young people who are being snuffed out of their true potential,” said Baraka.

Taking his potential to the next level with his own story, is Baraka’s additional mission to get his message across on an international level. In a’N.O.L.A. Life,” a drama about his life, stars a few of the young people he’s met over the years, who once felt hopeless. “God gave me this purpose to save lives. It’s a great feeling when kids get out of the youth study center and tell me they’re staying in school. That feeling is better than any award I could ever get,” said Baraka.
Ameer Baraka seen here with Kathy Bates. Both star in American Horror Story: Coven.  (Photo courtesy of Ameer Baraka)
Baraka hopes his character gets more time onscreen as the story of American Horror Story: Coven evolves. After all, the turmoil of being torn in life-changing directions reflects the life of pain and progress Baraka leads, one no one can direct or yell cut.

Here’s  a look Fox released earlier this year, showing what it takes for Baraka to transform into his popular character, 
Here’s a look at the trailer for N.O.L.A. Life,
What do you think about Baraka and his vision off-set?

E-mail Maniko Barthelemy directly at or leave a comment on this page. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

From Illiterate to Success, New Orleans Actor Beats Odds One Role at a Time

He's a member of the cast on one of the hottest FX television series this season. In its third season, "American Horror Story: Coven," which comes back for its mid-season premiere, Wednesday, Jan. 15, gives its nearly 4 million loyal viewers a spicy, gritty and gory taste of New Orleans history. It's full of supernatural events centered on New Orleans' mystique and rumors about an abusive slave owner. The  compelling acting, directing and writing that screams at you from scene to scene brings you into a world the average person really couldn't imagine. 

Wednesday, NewsHeels will introduce you to a New Orleans actor who went from being illiterate as a child to studying the dictionary and landing one of the most unforgettable roles on the FX hit. "I know what it's like to grow up and be called dumb and stupid by people in your family because they don't understand you're dyslexic and don't know how to help you."