By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS, Jan 31 (Reuters) - A Louisiana businessman and a former city hall insider told a federal court on Friday they repeatedly bribed then-New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin to win contracts from the city as it recovered from Hurricane Katrina.
Lawyers defending Nagin in a corruption trial that began this week tried to show that the witnesses were trading their testimony against the former mayor in return for leniency in their own legal battles.
Nagin was swept into office on promises of good government in 2002 and reelected in 2006, after he gained national prominence when Katrina overwhelmed levees and flooded 80 percent of the city, killing 1,500 people and causing some $80 billion in damage.
He was indicted a year ago by a federal grand jury on 21 counts of corruption, including bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and filing false tax returns.
Prosecutors have accused him of receiving trips, cash and tons of granite for a kitchen countertop company he ran with his two sons in exchange for preferable treatment in the awarding of city contracts.
"When it came to giving money to politicians, I never understood the concept, why you have to do that," said Bassam Mekari, who told the court his company paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to Nagin, 57.
"But you hear a lot that you've got to pay to play," said Mekari, a witness for the prosecution.
Mekari said he wrote a check for $20,000 to the countertop company called Stone Age to help the contracting firm where he worked to secure jobs from the city.
DEAL WITH PROSECUTORS
Under cross-examination, defense lawyer Robert C. Jenkins tried to press Mekari over whether $20,000 was actually an investment; Mekari said the money was a bribe. Asked whether his version of events had been tainted by a deal he reached with prosecutors for a suspended sentence for bribery in return for his testimony against Nagin, Mekari said he guessed they were willing to give him a break because they valued the information.
Jenkins told the court in opening arguments that he had "thousands and thousands of emails" to show there was no corruption on Nagin's part.
Gregory Meffert, whom Nagin had hired as the city's chief technology officer, also testified, saying he was a conduit for kickbacks that netted the former mayor hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Meffert pleaded guilty in 2010 to bribery, tax fraud and conspiracy in connection with his work at city hall.
He said he brought several of his previous business associates on as contractors to help develop technology systems for the city and quickly began accepting payments from another contractor in exchange for giving him city business.
That contractor, Mark St. Pierre, was convicted on federal bribery charges in 2011 and is serving a 17-year prison sentence.
Prosecutor Matthew Coman asked if St. Pierre considered Meffert and Nagin important to his own business success.
"He was completely dependent on us for work at City Hall," Meffert said.
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. (Reporting by Kathy Finn; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Prudence Crowther)