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Ex-New Orleans mayor denies taking bribes after Hurricane Katrina

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin arrives at court in New Orleans February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin arrives at court in New Orleans February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin on Friday testified during his federal corruption trial that he had not traded city business for bribes after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

Nagin, 57, faces 21 charges of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud and tax evasion related to contracts for millions of dollars in recovery work after the 2005 storm.

During Nagin's second day on the witness stand, prosecutor Matthew Coman asked Nagin about documents that authorities say are evidence that the former mayor schemed to extract money or favors from businesses in exchange for city contracts.

Coman showed contracts signed by Nagin, checks written by the contractors to the Nagin family's countertop installation company and invoices for granite delivered to the company at no cost to demonstrate that the mayor gained $500,000 by trading on his office. Nagin repeatedly denied the charge.

"You never put your own personal and financial interests first?" Coman asked.

"Absolutely not," the former two-term mayor said, insisting that he had been a good public servant.

He added, "I was working for the city."

Nagin said contractors who have pleaded guilty to bribery charges and testified that they were shaken down by the mayor have lied.

The former mayor said he never told contractor Rodney Williams, as Williams testified on Monday, that he was "tapped out" or needed financial help.

Nagin repeatedly said the tens of thousands of dollars prosecutors describe as bribes were actually investments into the countertop company the mayor co-owned with his two sons.

He said he was the "passive" owner of a 20 percent share in that company, but Coman showed the company's 2007 tax return listing Nagin as a 60 percent owner. Nagin said the percentage listing was for tax purposes only.

"BROKEN PROMISES"

Coman showed a transcript of a message Nagin left for an executive at Home Depot Inc when the retailer was seeking approval to buy city property to open a new store.

Prosecutors allege that Nagin arranged for his sons' company to get business from Home Depot in return for his assurance that the company would get the needed approvals.

In the email message, Nagin complained to the executive that Home Depot was not being helpful enough to his sons.

"I must tell you I am somewhat disappointed in the number of jobs we have gotten and a pattern of broken promises," Nagin said in the message.

Several employees of Home Depot testified about the company's dealings with the city administration after Katrina. No one associated with the company has been charged in the case.

Coman reminded Nagin of his testimony that his policy as mayor was that no city employee should accept anything of value from anyone doing business with the city.

"Mr. Nagin, you sold your office, didn't you?" Coman said in concluding his cross-examination.

"Nope," Nagin answered.

Following re-direct questioning by defense lawyer Robert Jenkins, Judge Helen Berrigan adjourned the session. She said the jury would hear closing arguments on Monday and would begin deliberating shortly thereafter.

Nagin, a former cable TV executive, was swept into office in 2002 on promises of good government. He was re-elected four years later.

Nagin, now a resident of Frisco, Texas, faces a possible prison sentence of more than 20 years if convicted on all counts.

(Reporting by Kathy Finn, editing by Ian Simpson and David Gregorio)

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