As jury selection begins today in the corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, the federal government will be tasked with proving that he benefited from bribery and kickbacks, allegedly receiving checks, cash, wire transfers, personal services and free travel from businessmen seeking contracts and favorable treatment from the city.
Nagin came to national attention in 2005 when he tried to get federal help for his city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a saga that thoroughly embarrassed President George W. Bush and his administration.
But now the feds are accusing Nagin of taking more than $200,000 in bribes, while his family members allegedly received a vacation in Hawaii; first-class airfare to Jamaica; private jet travel and a limousine for New York City; and cellular phone service.
Prosecutors allege that the businesses that provided this largesse to Nagin and his family won more than $5 million in city contracts.
The court is taking extraordinary measures in the early stages of the trial, closing the courtroom and banning laptops, phones and Wi-Fi during jury selection.
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U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan issued the restrictions last week because of concerns that courtroom rules “may not be respected.”
Those restrictions may be lifted “after the jury is sworn and in the event the court regains confidence that there will be full compliance with its orders by the media and public,” the judge wrote.
While legal experts say corruption is very hard to prove, two businessmen named in the charges have already pleaded guilty to making payoffs and are cooperating with prosecutors. In addition, another one was found guilty of bribing two Nagin staffers, and a fourth admitted to paying kickbacks to the sheriff of nearby Plaquemines Parish after winning a project management contract there.
If prosecutors can show that Nagin promised city business in exchange for their favors, “Then he’s done,”Ashleigh Merchant, a Georgia defense lawyer and legal observer, told CNN.