BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) â€” Former Gov. Edwin Edwards was convicted today of extorting hundreds of thousands of dollars from businessmen applying for riverboat casino licenses.
The former four-term governor was convicted of 17 racketeering and fraud counts and acquitted on nine counts. His son Stephen was also found guilty of racketeering, convicted on 18 counts and acquitted on five.
The extortion scheme allegedly took place while Edwards was in his final term and after he left office in 1996, when he still wielded considerable influence in Louisiana politics.
If convicted of all charges, Edwards, 72, would have faced up to 325 years in prison and nearly $7 million in fines. Throughout the trial, the silver-haired ladies' man with a soft Cajun accent maintained his usual confident and wise-cracking air.
Edwards was calm as the verdicts were announced and he looked over the jury's verdict form. His wife cried, and he hugged her.
``I regret that it ended this way, but that is the system,'' he said outside court. ``I have lived 72 years in the system and I will live the rest of my life in the system.''
Prosecutors said he had played catch-me-if-you-can with them for years. By his own count, Edwards has been the subject of almost two dozen state or federal investigations going back to his days as a congressman in the '60s, but he was never convicted. In 1985, he was acquitted on federal racketeering charges involving health care investments.
This time, federal prosecutors said Edwards, Stephen, state Sen. Greg Tarver and four other men engaged in an elaborate bribery and extortion scheme involving the licensing of riverboat casinos. Tarver was acquitted, as was a member of the state gambling board.
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 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 and were complicated. One of the 12 jurors was dismissed last week for failing to follow court rules. The judge said the juror had brought a dictionary and a thesaurus and highlighted the word ``extortion.''
A defense attorney also said today he will ask for a mistrial because the jury saw transcripts of secretly recorded conversations that contained underlined phrases. The jurors told the judge they had not been prejudiced by what they saw.
Edwards has other legal troubles. He still faces a June trial on federal charges that he helped rig a generous deal in 1996 for the head of a failed insurance company liquidated by the state.
In addition, he 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.
In this case, prosecutors characterized Stephen Edwards as a ``manager'' of the extortion scheme, while Andrew Martin, a former aide to Edwards; Cecil Brown, a cattleman and longtime friend; and Bobby Johnson, a contractor and also a longtime friend, allegedly acted as ``front men'' or ``bag men.''
A member of the state gambling board, Ecotry Fuller, was charged with giving Tarver, the state senator, a copy of a confidential state police report about casino-license applicants and lying about it to a federal grand jury.
Brown and Martin were convicted on all counts. Johnson was convicted on nine counts.
Tarver and Fuller were acquitted.
Prosecutors said Martin, Brown and Johnson made most of the contacts and did most of the talking, insulating Edwards from incriminating direct meetings with the alleged victims of extortion.
Prosecutors presented three key witnesses to wear through the insulation. They were Robert Guidry, former owner of the Treasure Chest casino and poker-playing crony of Edwin Edwards; Ricky Shetler, a lifelong friend and business partner of Stephen Edwards; and the star witness: DeBartolo, who was forced to turn over control of the 49ers to his sister as a result of the scandal.
Guidry said he sealed an extortion deal with Edwards in 1994, midway through his fourth term, and paid $1.5 million in monthly installments once Edwards was out of office.
Prosecutors said Stephen Edwards helped land Shetler a job with Players Casino in Lake Charles, and Shetler testified that he gave the Edwardses cash, cars, furniture, appliances and vacations in return for their help in getting state approval for two Players casinos and for hindering competition.
Edwards denied using the money belt as DeBartolo described and said the money was legitimate payment for legitimate legal and consulting work.
Prosecutors bolstered their claims with secretly taped conversations, including one in which the Edwardses and Martin are heard discussing a plan to rent a tugboat to Guidry at inflated prices so nobody would wonder why Guidry was paying out large sums of money.
Defense lawyers said Guidry, Shetler and DeBartolo all concocted their stories in plea bargains with federal prosecutors. The tapes, they argued, held no directly incriminating evidence. When Edwards took the stand, he said people have long invoked his name without his permission to gain political advantage.
After today's verdict, Edwards said 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,'' he said. ``I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough and here comes my body.''