By Stephanie Grace
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who chided federal officials for their slow response after Hurricane Katrina inundated the city, pleaded not guilty in federal court on Wednesday to charges that he took kickbacks in exchange for city contracts.
It was Nagin's first appearance in court - and his first public appearance in the city he led for eight years - since a federal grand jury handed down a 21-count public corruption indictment in January.
The charges include bribery, wire fraud, filing false tax returns, conspiracy and money laundering. Nagin, who now lives Texas, pleaded not guilty to all charges before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sally Shushan.
Shushan set Nagin's bond at $100,000, ordered him to surrender his passport, and limited his unrestricted travel to Louisiana and Texas. He can visit other states only with the court's prior approval.
Shushan set a trial date of April 29, although major public corruption cases generally take far longer to reach that stage. A pretrial conference was set for April 16. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan.
The former mayor, who had been known for his chattiness, said little to the judge or a sizable media contingent.
"No, man, I can't make any comments," he said as he entered the courthouse, accompanied by his attorney Robert Jenkins.
Nagin was a little-known businessman when he burst into public life in 2002, wooing voters with promises to think outside the box and rid City Hall of patronage. In 2005, after Katrina struck and several levees crumbled, his desperate plea for federal officials to "get off your asses" and help was heard worldwide.
Re-elected to a second term in 2006, Nagin was widely faulted for overseeing a halting recovery. The indictment focuses on questionable activity from this period, although some of the activities described purportedly occurred before the catastrophic storm.
Nagin is accused of taking gifts and more than $200,000 in cash from three city contractors, and using his official position to land a granite installation deal with Home Depot for a company he formed with his two sons, Jeremy and Jarin. He is also accused of accepting several truckloads of free granite from one of the corrupt contractors.
Two of the contractors, Frank Fradella and Rodney Williams, have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors. The third, Mark St. Pierre, was convicted in a 2011 trial with the help of former Nagin technology chief Greg Meffert, who had pleaded guilty to accepting kickbacks from St. Pierre.
Nagin is also accused of trading a tax waiver for a luxurious trip to New York with a New Orleans theater owner, identified in the indictment only as "Businessman A."
The indictment also lists "Family Member 1" and "Family Member 2" as alleged co-conspirators. The relatives are presumably Jeremy and Jarin Nagin, who appeared last fall before a grand jury and provided documents in response to a subpoena, according to their attorney.
New Orleans has a history rich with political intrigue, but Nagin is the first mayor to face criminal charges.
(Writing by Corrie MacLaggan; Editing by Greg McCune, Leslie Adler, David Gregorio and Cynthia Johnston)
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