NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Four years after leaving office, Louisiana's oft-investigated former insurance commissioner has been indicted on charges of shaking down insurance companies.

''Since I took office in 1972 until this indictment. Always. They were always investigating me,'' Sherman Bernard said Saturday in an interview.

''You had the U.S. attorney in Baton Rouge, the U.S. attorney in New Orleans, the grand jury here, the grand jury there, the district attorney here, the district attorney there, the Legislature here, the newspeople there. The list goes on and on,'' he said.

But never before has an investigation led to an indictment against the man who presided over the insurance industry in Louisiana for 16 years. On Friday, a federal grand jury accused Bernard of extorting $80,000 from five insurance companies.

At age 66, Bernard faces a maximum sentence of 180 years in prison and a fine of $3 million or more on eight counts of extortion, conspiracy and money laundering.

''I feel I'll be exonerated. I haven't done anything,'' Bernard said.

His attorney, Provino Mosca, said Bernard will appear for a bond hearing Wednesday.

Bernard was a house mover when he was first elected commissioner in February 1972 as a reform candidate who promised to cut insurance rates. Early in his first term, he accused eight insurance companies of making excessive profits and got several to cut their rates.

He was defeated in 1987 by Doug Green and left office in March 1988. Green now is in federal prison, serving a 25-year sentence for mail fraud and conspiracy in the collapse of Champion Insurance Co.

The indictment against Bernard covers 1987, when he fought his losing battle for re-election, and early 1988, before he left office.

Executives from all five insurance companies covered in the indictment have been convicted of insurance fraud and Bernard's top deputy has pleaded guilty to extorting money from them. The companies failed, leaving taxpayers with a bill for $67 million in unpaid claims through a state insurance guaranty fund.

U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg wouldn't say if prosecutors are investigating any earlier accusations. There are plenty:

- The head of the state House Commerce Committee accused Bernard of letting friends' companies operate with too little capital.

- Bernard hired his nephew as a deputy commissioner. After the nephew resigned, Bernard hired him on several state insurance contracts, saying later, ''I don't think of him as my nephew but as a good insurance lawyer.''

- A legislative committee and the New Orleans district attorney said Bernard licensed a bail bond firm that didn't have the assets needed to do business in Louisiana, but did have one of his friends as vice president.

None of the accusations stuck.

''We're going to let the public judge that,'' Rosenberg said. ''All we can do is prosecute the charges that are presented by the grand jury.''