Luck could run out for gambling governor

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The Independent US

In American politics, they don't come more colourful than Edwin Edwards. Raised in one of the poorest sections of New Orleans, he came to dominate the Louisiana landscape for decades, serving three terms as the state's governor while all the while cementing a reputation as a rogue, charming and a little dangerous.

His foibles were never hidden from the voters; they appreciated him all the more for them - his love of the high life and his weakness for gambling. Most Saturdays, he would hold high-stakes poker games in the governor's mansion.

Nor did it matter that the federal government seemed bent on humbling him as a crook. Twice in the 1980s, they brought him to trial on corruption charges. One fizzled into a mistrial; the second ended in acquittal. The quick-tongued Edwards, who over the years has been investigated by 24 federal grand juries, has always sent his accusers packing.

Could this be the week, however, when lovable scoundrel Edwards - now 72 and out of office since 1996 - becomes convicted criminal Edwards? All hangs on the votes of a jury which begins deliberations in a Baton Rouge court tomorrow. If found guilty, he could face fines running into millions and a 300-year jail term.

Edwards, who was first elected governor in 1972, is accused of taking $3m (£1.9m) in illegal payoffs from applicants for Louisiana riverboat casino licences both while he was governor from 1992 to 1996 and after he left office. He is accused along with his son, Stephen, and four other defendants.

This time, the prosecution has been aided by hundreds of hours of taped conversations between the defendants, captured by FBI wire taps, as well as the testimonies of some of those from whom Edwards allegedly tried to extort money. Among those who testified in return for leniency for themselves was a former owner of the San Francisco 49ers American football team, Eddie DeBartolo.

The testimony of DeBartolo may have been especially damaging. He described to jurors how at one meeting, Edwards wrote "$400,000" on a scrap of paper and pushed it across a restaurant table to him. That, according to the prosecution, was what DeBartolo had to pay to win Edwards' help in securing the state's last available casino licence.

Another witness, multimillionaire Robert Guidry, testified that he made $1.5m in under-the-table payoffs to the former governor. Sometimes, he said, he was told to leave large stacks of cash, in $100 bills, in rubbish skips to be picked up by men working for Edwards.

Edwards, who last week took the stand in a trial that has lasted almost four months and captivated the state, says any money that changed hands were fees legitimately earned by him as consultant to the licence applicants. "I was the governor of the state," Edwards told the jury. "That was a wonderful achievement for me. I wasn't going to demean my office by hustling people."

"The government has put on a case based on gossip, innuendo and lies," Dan Small, the main defence lawyer, told jurors last week. "Now we know that the government's case was nothing but bits and pieces."

The prosecution, however, portrayed a man driven by greed and a belief that he was beyond the law. They described Edwards splurging the $100 bills on luxury items for himself and his 35-year-old wife, Candy. He bought a ranch, a yacht and a plane.

"You must avoid the snares of deceit and clever lies and devilish charm," Jim Letten, the lead prosecutor, warned. "He's cold."