By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin took the stand on Thursday in his trial on federal corruption charges and testified that as mayor he kept his personal business separate from that of the city.
Nagin, who is accused of accepting bribes in exchange for city contracts, said his administration had needed to streamline contractor selection as the city struggled to recover from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"Eighty percent of the city was damaged, three-fourths of our citizens were dispersed ... we were fighting with state and the federal government to fix our city," Nagin said as his attorney, Robert Jenkins, had him explain how vendors were selected.
The city ordinarily awarded about $25 million a year in capital improvement contracts, but that figure soared to some 600 projects worth billions of dollars after Katrina, he said.
"We had to find people who could help us get that done," Nagin testified, adding that he never deviated from a commitment to make the city's contract-awarding business transparent.
Nagin, 57, faces 21 counts of bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and filing false tax returns.
Prosecutors have accused him of receiving cash and gifts valued at more than $500,000 during his two terms as mayor and for a short time after leaving office.
Nagin denied testimony by witnesses that he had traded city contracts for cash, including tens of thousands of dollars injected into the countertop installation businesses he co-owned with his two sons.
Jenkins asked Nagin about a trip his family took to Hawaii while he was mayor. Witnesses have testified that it was paid for by businessman Mark St. Pierre, who is serving a 17-year prison sentence for bribing city officials.
Nagin said he believed that the city's then-technology director, Gregory Meffert, had paid for the trip for the Meffert and Nagin families out of friendship.
Nagin contradicted testimony on Monday by Meffert, who has pleaded guilty to bribery, tax fraud and conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.
The prosecution rested on Wednesday after witnesses portrayed Nagin as desperate for money and willing to trade on his position to get cash. Nagin, a former cable TV executive, was swept into office in 2002 on promises of good government and won re-election four years later.
Under cross-examination by prosecutor Matthew Coman, Nagin denied that he had shown favoritism in awarding city contracts.
When Coman showed him an executive order he had signed that appeared to broaden the mayor's authority for awarding contracts, Nagin said the order was prepared by the city attorney, not the mayor.
"Who signed this order?" Coman asked, showing him the signature page of the order.
"I did," Nagin answered.
Nagin, who now resides in Frisco, Texas, faces a potential prison term of 20 years or more. Cross-examination is due to continue on Friday.
(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Editing by Toni Reinhold)