Former La. governor's extortion trial set for tomorrow

Edwards faces 28 counts

role in licensing of riverboat casinos at issue

January 09, 2000|By COX NEWS SERVICE

NEW ORLEANS -- "Fast Eddie" has always been a fitting nickname for Edwin Edwards. The smooth-talking, lady-killing, four-term former governor of Louisiana, has walked -- no, strutted -- out of two federal racketeering trials a free man.

Tomorrow in a federal court in Baton Rouge, he will go on trial again, this time with his son Stephen and four co-defendants. They are charged with extorting money from the state's casinos and tampering with the licensing process. Edwards faces 28 counts. The former governor says he is innocent and is confident a jury will agree.

But something has changed: Observers and even old friends predict this could be the case that slows him down for good.

"Edwin Edwards is obviously in a serious situation," said Gus Weill, who was Edwards' political consultant in the 1970s.

The cause for concern is the federal government's mountain of material, collected during almost three years of investigation. Prosecutors have tapes -- audio and video -- of Edwards and others talking in vulgar language about extortion and the "Louisiana way" of doing business.

Moreover, several old friends and potential co-defendants, including San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., have pleaded guilty and are helping prosecutors in exchange for lighter punishments.

"It's going to be very salacious testimony," said John Maginnis, publisher of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly. "When this thing first started, people were saying, `They'll never convict him.' Now they're saying, `This time I think they got him.' "

The allegations stem from events in 1991 -- when Edwards was in his fourth term and the state legalized gambling -- and in 1996-1997, when Edwards was out of office. Louisiana limits riverboat casinos to 15.

And that turns the gaming licenses into a valuable and coveted commodity.

Federal prosecutors say Edwards and others took advantage of the situation and demanded payoffs from casino owners in exchange for favorable rulings from the state licensing board.

"Edwards has never faced anything like this," Maginnis said.

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