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?