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Graft and credibility in focus as New Orleans ex-mayor trial winds down

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin makes an address at a public forum as part of the Sustainable Globalisation summit in Sydney June 11, 2009 fi
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin makes an address at a public forum as part of the Sustainable Globalisation summit in Sydney June 11, 2009 fi

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Former New Orleans mayor C. Ray Nagin was called a politician on the take in closing arguments by prosecutors at his graft trial on Monday while defense attorneys questioned the credibility of those who had cut deals to testify against him.

Nagin, 57, is standing trial on 21 counts of corruption, including bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and tax evasion during the city's recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that could land him in prison for more than 20 years if convicted.

The jury adjourned for the day after deliberating for about three hours without reaching a verdict and will resume discussions on Tuesday morning.

With Nagin and several members of his family seated in the packed courtroom, prosecutor Richard Pickens painted a picture of a mayor who was nearly broke from financing his sons' struggling granite countertop business and turned for help to contractors who needed his assistance to get city business.

"You saw how a mayor on the take operates," Pickens told the jury during his closing statements.

Pickens gave examples of five separate corruption schemes that Nagin used with different sets of players who allegedly paid cash bribes and provided other favors including free vacations to Hawaii and Jamaica, private jet trips to Chicago and Las Vegas, and parties for Nagin and his family, all with a combined value of more than $500,000.

During the 10-day trial, the jury heard from some 30 prosecution witnesses, including a city hall insider and contractors who earlier pleaded guilty to bribing public officials and are awaiting sentencing.

"You saw how (Nagin) used the power and authority of a high public office to extract payoffs from contractors," Pickens told the jury.

Pickens also said Nagin traded city dollars for cell phones for his family, and received truckloads of granite and money from a consulting contract after he left office in exchange for favors.

Showing summaries of bank transactions for the Nagins' company, Pickens reminded jurors that several times the account showed a negative balance immediately before deposits coinciding with alleged bribes landed in the account.

He also showed email exchanges between Nagin and a businessman who allegedly paid $23,000 to provide a private jet for the Nagin family for a shopping trip to New York City.

"Thanks a bunch. You the man!" Nagin wrote in an email to the man immediately after the jet was reserved.

Defense attorney Robert Jenkins countered by arguing prosecutors relied heavily on witnesses who testified against Nagin in hopes of gaining lighter sentences for their crimes.

"It goes to their credibility," Jenkins said, pointing to one contractor who was charged with separate crimes in Texas and whose case was consolidated with the Nagin matter.

"He got a sweet deal," Jenkins said.

Nagin's attorney said it defies logic to think the mayor helped steer huge amounts of city business to contractors for relatively small returns. "If I'm helping a guy get millions, I'm only going to get $50,000 of it? That doesn't make sense," Jenkins said.

He argued that what the prosecution called bribes were investments in the countertop company made by businessmen, not because Nagin demanded it, but simply in hopes of getting closer to the mayor by "treating his sons nicely."

On rebuttal, lead prosecutor Matthew Coman said Nagin during his eight hours of testimony last Thursday and Friday blamed everyone from members of his staff to his sons for situations that got him into trouble.

A former cable TV executive who swept into office on promises of good government in 2002 and won re-election four years later, Nagin now lives in Frisco, Texas.

If convicted, Nagin could be sentenced to at least 20 years under federal guidelines, said Tania Tetlow, a Tulane University law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney.

(Editing by Jon Herskovitz, Bernard Orr)

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