La. jury finds ex-gov. guilty

Edwards convicted of extortion in award of casino licenses

`Justice finally caught up'

Legendary glibness no match for hours of testimony, tapes

May 10, 2000|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

After years of nimbly treading the line between the law and the looser "Louisiana way" of doing business, former Gov. Edwin W. Edwards was convicted yesterday of racketeering and fraud in the awarding of lucrative casino licenses in the state.

Edwards, who served a record four terms as governor, was found guilty by a federal court jury of 17 of the 26 counts against him. His son Stephen and three other defendants were also found guilty of multiple charges; two defendants were acquitted.

The silver-haired Edwards, 72, listened calmly as the verdicts were announced, hugging his 35-year-old wife, Candy, as she and other supporters cried.

"I regret that it ended this way, but that is the system," he said. "I have lived 72 years in the system, and I will live the rest of my life in the system."

Edwards was convicted of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from business executives seeking licenses to open casinos in the state. Prosecutors said that the scheme began during his final term in office, which ended in 1996, and that it continued afterward, when he still wielded considerable influence in Louisiana politics.

He could be sentenced to more than 200 years in prison and fined millions of dollars.

While Edwards has long been the target of investigators, this time federal prosecutors had thousands of hours of secretly taped conversations and the testimony of several friends and associates who turned on the former governor. The star witness of the four-month trial was former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who testified that Edwards demanded and got a $400,000 cash payoff for help in getting a casino license in 1997.

Edwards-watchers viewed the verdict as the final act in a grand political life and the end of an era in the state's history.

"It was a very sad moment," said Edwards biographer John Maginnis, who was in the courtroom as the verdict was read. "You sort of felt, well he's made it this far, he should be allowed to just slip off into the sunset."

"There's a sense of melancholy about this," agreed Wayne Parent, a political science professor at Louisiana State University. "Edwards was governor at what was the best of times in Louisiana. There's a nostalgia for the Edwards era."

Edwards, a Democrat, was first elected governor in 1972, after the civil rights battles had been fought and as oil money was pumping new wealth into the state, Parent said.

A populist in the mold of Huey P. Long, Edwards charmed the masses with his quick wit and rakish ways. But nearly from the start, he was the subject of investigation. A string of grand juries investigated him over the years and he was implicated in the Koreagate scandal of the 1970s, but he managed to survive most inquiries with his popularity chiefly intact.

In 1985, he was charged with taking payoffs in exchange for the awarding of hospital licenses. That trial ended in a hung jury. He was retried the following year and acquitted. But he sustained some political damage and won his final term in office as the lesser of two evils in a race against former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

"Justice finally caught up with him," said John Volz, the retired federal prosecutor in the hospital trials. "I was beginning to doubt it ever would."

Edwards said yesterday that his conviction, after so many failed investigations, reminded him of a Chinese proverb: "`If you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will float by you.' I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough and here comes my body."

Prosecutors presented an immense case against Edwards and his co-defendants -- a 91-page indictment describing the awarding of five licenses. Edwards took the stand in his own defense, but his legendary glibness was no match for the hours of testimony and tapes that had preceded him.

The trial took place under a strict gag order and with a jury whose members were identified only by number. Deliberations, which began April 24, went on in fits and starts as jurors sent several notes to the judge and once asked to be released early because of stress. Behind-the-scenes turmoil led to one of the 12 jurors being dismissed last week for failing to follow court rules. The judge said the juror had brought a dictionary and a thesaurus and highlighted the word "extortion."

That juror was considered pro-Edwards, and his dismissal is expected to figure into an appeal of yesterday's verdict.

Once the juror was dismissed, the pace of deliberations quickened, and the verdict soon followed.

Edwards has other legal troubles. He faces a trial in June on federal charges that he helped rig a generous deal in 1996 for the head of a failed insurance company liquidated by the state. In addition, he faces charges of trying to illegally record the conversations of FBI agents who were investigating him in 1997; no trial date has been set.

Wire services contributed to this article..

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