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."