Feds investigating Nagin travel, family business

Feb 10, 2012, 10:36 PM

Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Longstanding questions about free trips and gratuities that former Mayor Ray Nagin allegedly accepted while in office are now the subject of a federal investigation, people with direct knowledge of the probe said Friday.

Federal authorities also are investigating how a firm founded by Nagin and his two sons landed a contract to install granite countertops for local Home Depot stores and whether the Nagin family company received free equipment from city vendors, the people said. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they could not publicly comment on an ongoing investigation.

Most of the allegations aren’t new. They have surfaced over the years as federal prosecutors secured guilty pleas by former Nagin administration officials in a City Hall bribery investigation. And state ethics officials have brought charges against Nagin over some of the claims.

However, The Times-Picayune newspaper reported that Friday that the allegations involving Nagin are now the focus of a federal grand jury probe.

Nagin, who had a speaking engagement Friday at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., told the AP that he hasn’t been contacted by investigators and only heard about the probe from newspaper reports.

“I haven’t had any direct conversation with anybody about this, but it sounds like the same old allegations that have been around for a while,” Nagin said. “We’ve gone through this. There’s been a civil lawsuit where everyone who testified said I had nothing to do with that, I wasn’t aware of it. Why it’s coming up again, I can’t tell you. I hope we have a chance to finally address it and be done with it.”

Nagin’s attorney, Harry Rosenberg, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on Friday. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten wouldn’t comment.

Greg Meffert, a former technology official and deputy mayor under Nagin, pleaded guilty in 2010 to charges he took bribes and kickbacks in exchange for steering city contracts to former city vendor Mark St. Pierre. Anthony Jones, who served as the city’s chief technology officer during Nagin’s administration, also pleaded guilty to taking payoffs.

Meffert cooperated with the government in its case against St. Pierre, who was convicted in May 2011 of charges that include conspiracy, bribery and money laundering.

Meffert was scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 5. But at the request of prosecutors, the hearing was postponed by nearly five months. They filed a document related to Meffert’s case under seal, saying that disclosing it would “interfere with a legitimate governmental interest.”

One of the people with knowledge of the probe involving Nagin said prosecutors are “trying to get to the top of that Mount Everest, and that’s where he’s sitting.”

Nagin alluded to the City Hall investigation when he spoke to an AP reporter on Friday.

“There’s always these rumors and innuendos out there, and I don’t know if some people are changing their tune because they’re being pressured or what, but I hope to address it finally and get it behind me,” he said.

Nagin’s speech at the Minnesota college was titled “Hurricane Katrina: Rainbows after the Storm.” He said he doesn’t know if federal authorities have contacted his attorney.

“He’s had interactions before, but now we’ve got a newspaper story, so I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ll find out when I get home,” Nagin said.

In April 2010, the Louisiana Board of Ethics charged Nagin with two possible violations of state ethics law. One involved St. Pierre, the other, Stone Age LLC, a business founded by Nagin and his sons.

One charge involves Nagin’s “use of a credit card and/or gifts” from St. Pierre and his technology firm NetMethods. NetMethods paid for Nagin and his family to travel to Jamaica in 2005, only a few months after Hurricane Katrina, and to Hawaii in 2004, according to newspaper reports.

In the other charge, the Ethics Board says Stone Age LLC received compensation for services provided to Home Depot when the home improvement company was negotiating tax breaks and other items with the city. The charges are to be heard by a panel of administrative law judges in Baton Rouge in July.

The Times-Picayune reported that businessman Aaron Bennett told the newspaper that he introduced Nagin to Frank Fradella, president of a restoration company called Home Solutions of America, specifically to help the mayor get the Home Depot granite installation work.

Fradella’s company received millions of dollars in city contracts for repair work at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and in the French Quarter, the newspaper reported.

Bennett pleaded guilty last year in an apparently unrelated case to bribing former Plaquemines Parish Sheriff Irvin “Jiff” Hingle and agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors.

Nagin, 55, served two terms as mayor. First elected in 2002, he cast himself as a politically moderate reform candidate. Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, devastating the city and scattering the population. Although his handling of the aftermath was criticized, he won re-election in early 2006. He could not seek a third consecutive term because of term limits and he was succeeded by Mitch Landrieu.

On his Twitter account, he describes his current occupations as author, public speaker, consultant and “green energy entrepreneur.”

___

Associated Press reporter Patrick Condon in White Bear Lake, Minn., contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Feds investigating Nagin travel, family business