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Forfeiture Hearing in Edwards Case

May 10, 2000

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) _ Edwin Edwards, the former four-term governor who proudly bragged about his ability to beat prosecutors, has been convicted of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from businessmen applying for riverboat casino licenses.

Edwards, who dominated state politics since first becoming governor in 1972, was found guilty Tuesday along with his son Stephen on charges of racketeering and fraud. The schemes took place during and after Edwards left office in 1996.

``I regret that it ended this way, but that is the system,″ Edwards said outside court. ``I have lived 72 years in the system and I will live the rest of my life in the system.″

Edwards was convicted of 17 of the 26 counts against him, including two racketeering charges that each carry 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Testimony began today in a hearing to determine what assets the convicted defendants will have to forfeit.

Edwards has other legal troubles, too. He faces a June trial on federal charges he helped rig a generous deal in 1996 for the head of a failed insurance company liquidated by the state.

He also faces charges of trying to illegally record the conversations of FBI agents who were investigating him in 1997. No trial date has been set in that case.

While his 35-year-old wife, Candy, silently sobbed, Edwards appeared calm as the verdicts were read Tuesday. The Chinese have a saying, he said later: ``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 and here comes my body.″

Prosecutors did not comment on the verdict but left the courthouse smiling.

It is a high-profile case even in Louisiana, with its wild and shady history of corruption. In the past 20 years, two insurance commissioners have been convicted of charges, the current one is under indictment and at least a half dozen legislators have been imprisoned.

By his own count, Edwards has been the subject of almost two dozen state or federal investigations going back to his days in Congress in the ’60s. In the 1980s he was charged with racketeering involving health care investments. His 1985 federal trial ended in a hung jury; he was acquitted in a retrial a year later.

Edwards served two terms as governor in the 1970s but left office because of a state ban on three in a row. He was elected again in 1983 and in 1991, after defeating former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke in a runoff.

Prosecutors said Edwards, his son, a state senator and four other men engaged in an elaborate bribery and extortion scheme involving casino licenses. Two of the defendants were acquitted.

The trial featured tales of huge sums of cash changing hands, secretly recorded conversations and the public betrayal of Edwards by men with whom he once socialized and gambled. The defense claimed, among other things, that the money was legitimate consulting payments.

The government’s star witness 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 DeBartolo a casino license in 1997. DeBartolo said Edwards picked up stacks of $100 bills near the San Francisco airport and hid the cash in a wide money belt under his shirt.

The deliberations began April 24. One of the 12 jurors was dismissed for failing to follow the rules, and the remaining jurors reached their verdict 2 1/2 days later. The juror was a reported hold-out for the defense; the judge said he brought a dictionary and a thesaurus and highlighted the word ``extortion.″

Prosecutors characterized Stephen Edwards, 45, as a manager of the extortion scheme, while three men allegedly acted as front men to insulate the former governor: Andrew Martin, a former aide to Edwards; Cecil Brown, a cattleman and longtime friend; and Bobby Johnson, a contractor and longtime friend.

Brown and Martin were convicted on all counts. Johnson was found guilty on nine counts. Stephen Edwards was convicted on 18 of 23 counts.

A member of the state gambling board, Ecotry Fuller, was charged with giving state Sen. Greg Tarver a copy of a confidential state police report about casino-license applicants and lying about it to a federal grand jury. He was acquitted, as was Tarver, who had been accused of passing the report to Edwards for DeBartolo.

Prosecutors presented three key witnesses: Robert Guidry, former owner of the Treasure Chest casino and an Edwards poker-playing crony; Ricky Shetler, a lifelong friend and business partner of Stephen Edwards; and DeBartolo, who was forced to turn over control of his football team to his sister as a result of the scandal.

Guidry said he sealed an extortion deal with Edwards in 1994 and paid $1.5 million in monthly installments once Edwards was out of office.

Shetler testified that he gave the Edwardses cash, cars, furniture, appliances and vacations in return for their help in getting state approval for two casinos and for hindering competition.

Edwards was convicted in all of the schemes that featured the three key witnesses. Their testimony was bolstered by secretly taped conversations, including one in which the Edwardses and Martin discussed a plan to rent a tugboat to Guidry at inflated prices so nobody would wonder why Guidry was paying out large sums of money.

The defense said Edwards’ accusers concocted their stories in plea bargains with prosecutors. The tapes, they argued, contained no directly incriminating evidence.

Edwards, the only one of the seven defendants to take the stand, testified that people have long invoked his name without his permission to gain political advantage. He said the money from DeBartolo was payment for legitimate legal and consulting work.

The jury decided that prosecutors failed to link Edwards to a shakedown of an Illinois-based group of businessmen seeking a license for a New Orleans casino. He also was acquitted in an alleged shakedown of the Jazz Casino Corp.’s plans for a Baton Rouge casino.

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