- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2000

DALLAS Edwin Edwards, the smooth-talking Cajun politician who for three decades pushed the limits ethically, legally and, some claim, morally, goes on trial today in Louisiana with his life virtually on the line.

The four-time governor, 72, faces federal charges for the third time, but the stakes are higher, the outcome more ominous, than before.

He is charged, along with his son and five others, of conspiring to extort payoffs from those who wanted to obtain the state's limited and financially lucrative riverboat-gambling licenses from 1991 to 1996.

If convicted of even a few of the 29 counts of racketeering, money laundering, fraud, wiretapping and conspiracy charges, Mr. Edwards would probably spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Today, in a Baton Rouge courtroom expected to be packed with dozens of newsmen, defendants' relatives and lawyers, lobbyists and politicians, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola will begin selection of a jury.

Judge Polozola is said to be a "no-nonsense judge." He also is said to be no admirer of Mr. Edwards.

Not only do prosecutors have several former Edwards cronies as government witnesses, but they have more than 1,500 hours of wiretapped phone conversations and thousands of documents.

Mr. Edwards won one acquittal and a hung jury in the two 1980s trials, both held in New Orleans, where a more liberal attitude and higher minority jury pool can be found. Baton Rouge is considered far more conservative.

Two decisions by Judge Polozola in recent days have crippled the defense, though they were not totally unexpected.

One dealt with the judge's denial of a defense motion to toss out the wiretap material, which Mr. Edwards' attorneys claimed was obtained illegally.

The investigation began after two Houston con men strolled into the New Orleans FBI office in April 1996 and told wide-eyed agents they had been funneling money to "big shots in Louisiana" and that they could "deliver" Mr. Edwards.

The two brothers, Mike and Pat Graham, were facing heavy prison time in Texas for several felonies. They had forged documents, duped investors out of millions in various schemes, pled guilty to evading hundreds of thousands in federal taxes, been charged with money laundering in a failed attempt to break a murderer out of the Texas state penitentiary, stolen cars and committed perjury. They wanted help with their "problems," they said.

Although the Grahams had seldom been known for truth in the past, a few telephone calls, monitored by agents, seemed to indicate they had been involved with Louisiana officials perhaps not Mr. Edwards himself, but definitely some of his closest friends and business partners.

A few weeks later, on Sept. 16, in a closed hearing before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Karen Brown in Houston, New Orleans Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Irwin, then in charge of the Edwards investigation, testified that the Grahams were "as bad as they come. Unfortunately, you know, they came to us and we've been able to independently corroborate the things they tell us. And the things that we're not able to independently corroborate, we believe are lies."

By October, permission had been obtained by the government to wiretap Mr. Edwards' home.

The second blow to the defendants came when Judge Polozola ruled that federal wiretap charges against Mr. Edwards should remain a part of the current trial, not a separate case, as sought by the defense.

The government claims that Mr. Edwards hired a Mississippi man to wiretap the homes of two FBI agents, ostensibly to monitor the investigation. The ex-governor says the government made fake tapes to entrap him.

John Volz, a Covington, La., lawyer who was the chief prosecutor in the 1986 fraud case against Mr. Edwards, called the wiretap decision by the judge "extremely important."

"It shows the cunning, the sleaze factor," he said. He said almost every white-collar prosecution found the defense complaining: "It was just a business deal. Well, if it was just a business deal, why do you go tapping the FBI?"

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