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April 16, 2014

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Witness’ testimony resumes in trial of ex-mayor

Updated Friday, Jan. 31, 2014 | 10:09 a.m.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The lead witness in former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin's corruption trial said Friday that he bribed Nagin to get lucrative post-Hurricane Katrina city contracts, sticking to his testimony while a defense lawyer questioned him about his past lies to the FBI and a plea deal with prosecutors that could reduce his potential prison sentence.

"I engaged in a bribe that was solicited," contractor Rodney Williams told defense attorney Robert Jenkins as the second day of testimony opened in Nagin's trial.

Nagin's 21-count indictment accuses him of accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — including money, trips and truckloads of free granite for his family business — in return for helping contractors secure city business. Charges against Nagin include bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and filing false tax returns.

Williams testified Thursday that he and his partners paid $60,000 in bribes to secure city contracts. Jenkins on Friday noted that Williams has acknowledged having lied to the FBI about the case before eventually making a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. Jenkins said the conspiracy charge to which Williams pleaded could have meant a 5-year sentence and noted that Williams has yet to be formally sentenced.

Jenkins also showed copies of documents from a review panel that looked at the qualifications of applicants for city contracts, suggesting in his questions that Williams and prosecutors were overstating the power of Nagin to approve contracts.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Coman countered in follow-up questioning by pointing out language indicating that, while the panel reviewed qualifications, it was the mayor who had power to approve the documents.

Coman also addressed Williams' motives for testifying, seeking to counter Jenkins' suggestions that Williams was concocting a story prosecutors wanted the jury to hear

Under Coman's questioning, Williams said he would not be facing jail time at all had he not bribed Nagin, nor would in a courtroom testifying in a criminal case.

"Did you deliver for Ray Nagin?" Coman asked.

"Yes," Williams said.

"Did he deliver for you?"

"Yes."

Williams, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty in December 2012 to a conspiracy charge that carries a 5-year sentence. His plea agreement calls for a sentence ranging from 30 to 37 months.

During testimony Thursday, Williams told jurors he panicked when first asked by FBI agents about money he paid to Nagin and Nagin's sons. He said he had tried to curry favor with Nagin's administration with campaign contributions and by hosting a fishing trip that the mayor attended. He said Nagin's sons first approached him for money to help a foundering family granite business. He said he and his partners paid the money, concealing the purpose in various ways, including the establishment of a fictional business, while hoping to gain a share of millions of dollars in recovery work for his engineering consulting firm in the years following Katrina.

He said he and his partners paid $60,000 in bribes and, in return, began getting work from the city that eventually totaled more than $2.6 million.

Corroborating his story later Friday was witness Bassam Mekari, a former Williams business partner, who said he cashed a $10,000 check and gave the money to one of Nagin's sons — a bribe, Mekari said.

"'Ive always been schooled, you know, 'You got to pay to play here in New Orleans,'" Mekari said as Jenkins questioned him about the payment.

Mekari has not been charged with a crime but, Jenkins noted, reached a 'pre-trial diversion' agreement with the government to avoid prosecution.