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Racketeering Trial Begins For New Orleans DA

June 12, 1990

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ District Attorney Harry Connick stayed away from court Monday as jury selection began in his federal racketeering trial, saying he was more worried about prosecuting criminals than defending himself.

″The district attorney’s office doesn’t shut down for this,″ said Connick. ″There’s serious work to be done here.″

Connick said he would miss the preliminary court sessions but would be present for substantial matters. He is representing himself, with co-counsel William Wessel.

Connick could face up to 25 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted of helping an arrested bookie continue his gambling operation by giving him back his confiscated records.

″This is more than over-reaching. There’s no violation here. There’s no crime for me to say I’m innocent of. I will say I have done nothing wrong,″ Connick said.

Lawyers from the Justice Department in Washington are handling the case, but Connick blamed U.S. Attorney John Volz for the indictment. Volz and Connick have feuded publicly over the years and Connick has said the charges against him stemmed from a Volz vendetta.

Besides Connick, those on trial in U.S. District Court include actor Paul Burke, who starred in TV’s ″The Naked City;″ former federal prosecutor Patrick Fanning; businessman Wilson Abraham; convicted bookmaker Walton Aucoin and Aucoin’s alleged employees, Steve Bertolino and William Condon. None of the defendants was in court Monday.

Wessel said he expected tapes made of conversations in Connick’s office to be the main thrust of the government’s case. Both he and Connick said the tapes did not contain any ″smoking gun.″

″There’s nothing there that will even embarrass me, let alone convict me,″ said Connick.

Jury selection was expected to take most of the week, with arguments beginning Monday. The trial is expected to last four to five weeks.

The father of jazz musician Harry Connick Jr., Connick has been district attorney in New Orleans since 1973.

″I don’t know if this will hurt me,″ Connick, who is seeking re-election in October, said of the trial. ″I depend entirely on the public. I would hope they would understand what’s happening here and have faith in the fact that I’ve been a public servant most of my adult life.″

The indictment accused Aucoin, Bertolino and Condon of owning and conducting a New Orleans-based illegal interstate gambling operation that netted up to $2,000 a day.

Fanning, Abraham and Burke were charged with aiding the operation by helping Connick concoct an excuse for returning the seized records Aucoin needed to keep it going. Aucoin was arrested in December 1988.

Connick has said that in returning the records, he was acting in accordance with state criminal procedures, which let defendants see evidence against them.

Two others indicted in the case pleaded guilty last week to helping conduct an illegal gambling business: Aucoin’s daughter, Darlene Peake, and Iris Ethridge, a bank employee who handled Aucoin’s account at a suburban bank.

Federal prosecutors agreed to drop a more serious charge of racketeering in exchange for the women’s cooperation. A perjury charge against Ms. Ethridge also will be dropped, attorneys said.