Trial opens window on Louisiana rogue politics

Devil-may-care gambler facing his day in court

April 23, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brows are wrinkling, lips are pursing. Everyone in courtroom 201 seems in high snit: The jury thinks a defendant's wife has been making faces at witnesses. The judge thinks the lawyers are ignoring his rulings. The U.S. marshals think several spectators need a good jab of the baton for whispering among themselves.

In the center of this petulant bunch -- in fact, the whole reason they are here at all -- is a 72-year-old man as placid as all around him are agitated. His pinkish face is baby-bottom smooth, his white hair cascades from a sweatless brow and his expression tells you as much as that of a veteran poker player holding a straight flush.

Edwin Washington Edwards is a riverboat gambler, after all, a character right out of Twain. At the craps table or in the arena of Louisiana politics, he likes his stakes high and his risks big.

Today, those two worlds are colliding rather spectacularly for the sharecropper's son who rose to an unprecedented four terms as governor of Louisiana. Edwards' interest in casinos, it turns out, extended well beyond his own gambling. Federal prosecutors charge that he extorted more than $3 million from casino companies in exchange for helping them get licenses to operate in Louisiana.

This week, a jury will begin weighing the massive case against the former governor and six co-defendants, who are charged with rigging the licensing process during Edwards' last term, which ended in 1996, and continuing after he left office. If found guilty of all 28 counts, Edwards could face a prison term of up to 350 years.

It's a sobering prospect, that one of Louisiana's most colorful governors -- which is saying something in a state where one of his predecessors openly consorted with the Baltimore stripper Blaze Starr -- could spend the last years of life behind bars.

As he faces the fight of his life, Edwards has kept up appearances. Every day of the trial, which began Jan. 10, he has strolled in and out of the courthouse as if campaigning for office -- smiling, waving and with the requisite arm of his second wife, the stylish, blond 35-year-old Candy.

He seems the same devil-may-care fellow who has dominated the state's public life since he was elected in 1972, the first governor ever to come out of Cajun bayou country. And he is the last, for now, in a line of wily operators to have governed the state, ruling with a wink at the law and bagfuls of cash, populists rather than policy wonks.

Whether he was jetting two planeloads of campaign contributors to Paris or arriving at a previous corruption trial in a horse and buggy -- a comment on the slow wheels of justice -- Edwards has entertained as much as he has governed.

To which Edwards would plead guilty as charged.

"The biggest sin in politics," he said blithely in an interview last month, "is to be boring.

"That, and being a hypocrite," he added, "and I'm not a hypocrite."

Indeed, when it comes to Edwards, voters have known what they were getting. He's never made a secret of his rather loose interpretation of the law, and in fact, he said as much from the witness stand this month, when he testified in his own defense.

"I try to stay within the law," he said. "Sometimes I don't."

The former governor's four days on the stand drew bigger-than-normal crowds to the courthouse, although for true Edwards watchers it was hardly vintage stuff.

"He did as well as he could," said John Maginnis, a political analyst who has written two books about Edwards. "But he wasn't charming the jury the way he has in the past."

Edwards has been in remarkably similar straits before. In 1985, he was charged with taking kickbacks in exchange for licenses to build hospitals and nursing homes. The first jury deadlocked; he was tried again and acquitted.

A reporter asked him after one trial, "What's your answer to those who will say, `Edwin Edwards is guilty as hell, but the prosecution just wasn't smart enough to get him?'"

"They're half right," Edwards said.

Edwards was in full naughty-boy form then, holding daily news conferences on the steps of the courthouse and pulling stunts like his horse-and-buggy routine.

"I shouldn't have done that," he says now, but with a grin that indicates he'd do it again in a heartbeat. "Sometimes I do or say things just for the hell of it."

Lion in winter

But now, at 72, Edwards is something of a lion in winter. The shenanigans are mostly a thing of the past, particularly because he's wary of antagonizing the judge on his current case, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola, who has clamped a gag order on all trial participants largely to keep the irrepressible Edwards from turning the case into a circus.

Additionally, Polozola is the judge on Edwards' other trial this year, scheduled to begin in June. Edwards and Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown will be tried for fraud and conspiracy, among other charges, in connection with a liquidation settlement for a failed insurance company.

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