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Jury selection starts in ex-New Orleans mayor's graft trial

Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin arrives at court in New Orleans February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman
Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin arrives at court in New Orleans February 20, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Kathy Finn

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Jury selection started on Monday in the public corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who led the city during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and now faces charges he profited personally from the city's recovery.

Nagin, who was swept into office on promises of good government in 2002 and re-elected in 2006, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 21 counts of corruption, including bribery, wire fraud, conspiracy, money laundering and filing false tax returns.

Nagin was silent as he walked with a limp into the courtroom and did not answer questions from reporters.

About 150 people have been called as potential jurors for the trial that is expected to take about two weeks.

The trial is expected to begin once a jury is selected, a process that may take a few days given the number of candidates and the prominence of the defendant.

Nagin could be sentenced to 20 years in prison or more under federal sentencing guidelines if he is convicted of the charges against him, a legal expert said.

During a long federal investigation, numerous former associates of Nagin signed plea deals with the government and agreed to testify against him.

Nagin, 57, was indicted January 2013 and charged with accepting gifts that included more than $200,000 in cash and wire transfers, free vacations for him and his family, and truck loads of free granite delivered to a countertop installation company Nagin owned with his two sons.

Nagin's trial was due to begin in October 2013, but U.S. District Judge Helen Ginger Berrigan granted a last-minute delay to give Nagin's attorney, Robert Jenkins, more time to prepare. Jenkins did not respond to a request for comment.

Nagin was thrust into the national spotlight in 2005 when Katrina overwhelmed levees and flooded 80 percent of the city, killing 1,500 people and causing some $80 billion in damage.

Thousands of New Orleans residents were displaced by the storm, especially poor African-Americans, and many were relocated for months or left New Orleans permanently.

As mayor during the crisis, Nagin publicly clashed with federal and state officials over relief efforts and was accused of making statements during the crisis that inflamed passions.

Later, Nagin, who is black, was criticized for racial divisiveness for urging residents to rebuild a "chocolate New Orleans," referring to its majority African-American population.

(Reporting by Kathy Finn; Editing by Edith Honan, Steve Orlofsky and Andrew Hay)

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