Nelson case, day 2

Nelson case, day 2
Tuesday, June 7, 2011 - 5:39pm

12 jurors and four alternates have been chosen to serve in the federal trail against former New Roads Mayor Tommy Nelson. The 16 include three African American men, one African American woman, four white men, six white women, an Asian woman and a Hispanic man. Shortly after they were seated, opening statements began.

The case is the result of a federal investigation, which started in St. Gabriel back in 2007. FBI agents and other people working for the FBI posed as businessmen, representing a fake garbage can cleaning company called, Cifer 5000. They offered elected officials money and other bribes in return for positive representation and favoritism for the company.

From Tuesday’s opening statements it’s clear; it's not the evidence that is the question. Most of it is video tapes and audio recordings of Mayor Nelson with undercover FBI agents. Instead the state and defense played highlights of a few key conversations during their opening arguments.

One video, from May of 2010, shows the former mayor accepting an envelope of cash. In other audio clip, from October of 2008, Nelson clearly says he's not interested in money and just wants what is best for the citizens of New Roads.

The clips will establish a timeline, critical to the crux of both cases. The state says Mayor Nelson took cash from the very start. The defense claims it was more than a year, before the Government entrapped Nelson into taking money from undercover agents.

Both sides agree that the investigation was sparked by St. Gabriel Mayor George Grace, who they say invited Nelson and two other local mayors to New Orleans on October 8, 2008 to hear about the business. The group was treated to Saints tickets and a hotel stay. Grace has also been indicted as a result of the “Operation Blighted Officials” investigation but has not yet been tried.

The state says money changed hands that very first night, with Mayor Grace filtering bribe money to the other mayors. The defense claims it was more than a year before Nelson accepted any money from an FBI agent.

The defense asks jurors to decide if Nelson was the kind of mayor who would accept bribes before this investigation, or if this is something the government created - what they call entrapment.

The state says all jurors need in this case is life experience and common sense to come back with a guilty verdict. They say Nelson took four cash payments of $5,000 each, plus $2,000 of other valuables, all while knowing he was breaking the law.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Jefferson told jurors, “Tommy Nelson is an elected official willing to sell or trade the power of his office for personal profit.”

Defense attorney Page Pate followed up by asking jurors to decide if Nelson was “that kind of Mayor” before the Government “did what they did.” He said if Nelson wasn’t corrupt before being influenced by agents, then there’s no way he can be found guilty of racketeering or fraud.

Tommy Nelson did admit to the FBI that he had taken money from Cifer 5,000 representatives. His defense backs up that statement, and says they will prove that FBI agents went as far as to freeze Nelson’s credit cards to entice him to take money and gifts he had repeatedly refused.

Nelson faces criminal charges for taking bribes, wire fraud and lying to the FBI. If convicted, he could serve up to 65 years in federal prison and pay up to $1.7 million in fines.

Court resumes at 9am Wednesday, when the first witnesses will be called. U.S. District Judge Chief Ralph Tyson is presiding over the trial. He told jurors it could last three weeks.

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