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 Ex-Governor Edwards Guilty of Fraud


  By Ken Ringle

Washington Post Staff Writer

Wednesday, May 10, 2000; Page A01  

Former Louisiana governor Edwin W. Edwards, 72, the honey-tongued bad boy of Louisiana politics who flirted with corruption charges through four terms in the governor's office, was convicted yesterday on 17 racketeering and fraud charges that could send him to jail for the rest of his life.

The verdicts came two weeks after the start of deliberations in a four-month trial in Baton Rouge, the state capital where Edwards often appeared to rule during the past 30 years like a charmed prince. He once implored voters to return him to office "or there won't be anything left to steal."

  The charges grew out of a complex scheme whereby Edwards, his son and five other associates allegedly extorted money from individuals seeking casino licenses in Louisiana's mushrooming gambling industry. The alleged actions took place during his final term as governor and after he left office in 1996.

  His son Stephen was convicted of 18 counts of racketeering and acquitted on five. Edwards was acquitted on nine of the charges against him, which involved extortion, mail fraud and wire fraud as well as racketeering.

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

The convictions end perhaps the longest and most flamboyant political career in a state whose politics, writer A.J. Liebling once suggested, often appear to have more in common with a Mediterranean country than with the rest of the United States.

Edwards has been the subject of nearly two dozen federal investigations dating back to his days as a congressman in the 1960s. But he had never been convicted until yesterday, and often declared that Louisianans would continue to return him to office unless he was "found in bed with a dead woman or a live boy."

Even as his recent trial was hearing testimony of migrating grocery sacks of $100 bills, payoffs tossed in trash dumpsters and thousands stashed in home freezers under the frozen ducks, Louisianans were voicing affection for the former chief executive many continued to view as a harmless and lovable rascal.

Acknowledged even by his opponents as a masterful chief executive with unmatched knowledge of the Louisiana government, the silver-haired Edwards has often delighted Pelican State voters by thumbing his nose at convention.

But this trial was different. Federal prosecutors unreeled hours of taped telephone and office conversations detailing payoff and money-laundering schemes that Edwards sought unsuccessfully to portray as harmless efforts to disguise his role as a legitimate if controversial consultant to casino license seekers.

The star witness against him was former San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who testified that Edwards demanded and received a $400,000 cash payoff as a condition for seeing that DeBartolo's casino license application sped to approval.

  Edwards faces another trial next month on federal charges that he helped rig a generous deal four years ago for the head of an insurance company liquidated by the state. He also faces charges of attempting to secretly record conversations by federal agents investigating him. No trial date has been set in that case.

Lawyers involved in the trial could not discuss details of the case because of a gag order that U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola imposed. The order was to continue at least through today, after a hearing to determine whether the defendants convicted would have to forfeit cash or property they gained through racketeering.

Defense attorneys said they will ask that a mistrial be declared because the jury saw a written transcript of recorded conversations in which portions were improperly underlined. A further complication could stem from the judge's removal during deliberations of one juror he said was failing to follow instructions to the jury.  

Three of Edwards's associates--former aide Andrew Martin, cattleman Cecil Brown and contractor Bobby Johnson--had been designated as "bag men" or "front men" in the extortion scheme. Brown and Martin were convicted on all counts against them, Johnson on nine. Two others indicted in the scheme, state Sen. Greg Tarver and state gambling board member Ecotrie Fuller, were acquitted.  

Edwards, though he affected a posture of jauntiness throughout the trial, clearly appeared at other times as if he knew the long game was finally over.

After yesterday's verdict, he told the Associated Press he was reminded of a Chinese saying: If you sit by a river long enough, the dead bodies of your enemies will float by you.

"I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough," he said. "And here comes my body."