- The Washington Times - Monday, May 15, 2000

BOSSIER CITY, La. Some Louisiana folks, stunned by last week's conviction of Edwin "Fast Eddie" Edwards, still think the roguish four-time governor somehow will beat the rap and avoid prison.

Others believe the Cajun dandy probably will serve the rest of his life in federal prison.

Still others predict the Baton Rouge verdict, rendered after several unusual delays and with only 11 jurors, likely will be overturned by an appellate court, forcing a retrial.

Edwards, 72, a man admittedly addicted to gambling, carousing and life in the fast lane, was found guilty of 17 counts of bribery, extortion and racketeering by a federal grand jury. His lawyer son, Stephen, 45, also was found guilty, along with three others, all of them characterized as fixers or bagmen, in an elaborate scheme that funneled millions into the Edwardses' bank accounts.

The surprise, to many, was that Edwards was found guilty at all.

"I know they had a hundred tapes of wiretaps," Ossie Denson, 57, said as he tossed the dice at a local casino Friday, "but I thought he would testify, explain it, and it would all go away. I never thought they'd get him. He was too smooth."

Harry Rosenberg of New Orleans, a former U.S. attorney there, said he thought Edwards would be convicted, but didn't know anyone who agreed.

"Virtually everybody I spoke to in New Orleans was convinced it would end in a hung jury or an acquittal," he said. "I think in other parts of the state many were mildly surprised that the governor wasn't able to pull it off for the third time."

Edwards, who once told a reporter he had been investigated almost two dozen times by various law enforcement agencies "and they haven't got a whiff of me yet," was charged with numerous counts of bribery and coercion in 1985 and 1986, but once forced a hung jury and the second time was acquitted.

"After all these years, Edwin Edwards has finally got his justice," said John Volz of Covington, the U.S. attorney and chief prosecutor in the first two federal trials.

He said Edwards, so assured of his charm and wit, probably caused his own downfall when he testified in the Baton Rouge trial. He was the only defendant who testified.

"He admitted, 'I violated the law, but not in this case,' " said Mr. Volz, referring to recorded conversations in which Edwards discussed schemes to avoid paying income taxes on bribes from one casino owner. Edwards testified that he didn't act on the suggested schemes, but, opined Mr. Volz, "the damage was done."

In another instance, Edwards' advice to former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields, advising him how to hide a $20,000 cash campaign contribution, was "equally incriminating," said the former U.S. attorney.

Several state lawyers said that strict control exhibited by U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola was another factor in Edwards' verdict.

The judge maintained a strict gag order, forcing defendants and lawyers alike not to comment on trial events, and that proved a liability to the usually glib and entertaining Edwards.

"No circus this time," said Mr. Volz, who agonized at the previous trials as Edwards did everything but lead a parade in the French Quarter.

"The tapes," wrote columnist James Gill in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "revealed a sordid and greedy character bearing little resemblance to the winsome and good-humored Edwards who appears in public."

"Edwards," Mr. Gill added, "could not have dominated our political life for decades without formidable gifts. That those gifts were undermined by a gaping character flaw is his tragedy and our loss."

Some harbor extreme resentment for government prosecutors and a federal judge they think unduly reined in Edwards.

"Those guys [the prosecutors] enjoyed it too much," snapped Bill Thompson, a Shreveport salesman. "Give me a million bucks and 50 investigators and I could get a 'guilty' on anyone," he added.

State Rep. Joe Delpit, acquitted of being involved in a pardons-for-sale scheme with Edwards more than 15 years ago, called the judge's actions in removing one juror "a travesty of justice."

Others said this might be cause for reversal of the verdicts.

"There are more questions than answers," said Mr. Rosenberg, the former U.S. attorney. He said such an action, though rare, was lawful if the judge deemed the juror known only as No. 68 unable to legally handle his responsibilities.

Edwards faces a similar trial next month, another federal conspiracy, mail fraud and insurance fraud prosecution. State insurance commissioner Jim Brown is a co-defendant.

New Orleans U.S. Attorney Eddie Jordan said he had spoken to Edwards last week about a plea bargain.

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