- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

As Rep. William J. Jefferson, Louisiana Democrat, faces a multifaceted federal bribery investigation, some of his constituents consider the scandal little more than deja vu.

Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards once explained his own scandals as a conspiracy: “The feds want to destroy our way of life down here. They’ll do anything to embarrass us and try to put us in jail.”

That was years ago, after Edwards was acquitted of federal bribery charges in New Orleans. He did not fare so well when he was charged again in 2000 with receiving massive bribes. Federal investigators bugged his home, his office and even a restaurant he frequented.

Today he sits in the federal penitentiary in Oakdale, La., and is not eligible for release until 2011.

Edwards routinely accused FBI and other government agents of being “dupes” or “fools.” The Harvard-educated Mr. Jefferson, however, has been deferential toward investigators.

As Mr. Jefferson joined several important House committees and built his congressional career, he seldom was mentioned in the same conversation as corruption.

Edwards, a colorful Democrat, survived 22 grand jury investigations and three federal corruption trials before he was convicted.

Seeking re-election in 1983, Edwards famously boasted to reporters, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

Much evidence supports Edwards’ view of federal investigators trying to destroy Louisiana’s “way of life,” in a state with a long-standing reputation for corrupt politics. Several other state political and business leaders have fallen beneath an avalanche of federal wiretapping and eavesdropping assaults.

Among those was Joe Delpit, a Democratic state legislator accused in 1986 of trying to bribe the state Pardon Board chairman to set up an Edwards gubernatorial pardon for a murderer.

Mr. Delpit, on several FBI tapes, assured a federal agent posing as an uncle of the killer that for $50,000 the pardons board chief, Howard Marsellus, would expedite the deal. As the deal seemed headed for the payoff, Mr. Delpit told Mr. Marsellus that Edwards balked and wanted $100,000 for the favor.

The deal was off, but the government charged Mr. Delpit with attempted bribery. Mr. Marcellus pleaded guilty. Tapes at his trial clearly indicated Mr. Delpit had taken a “down payment” on the deal and spun a tale of legislative chicanery.

A tearful Mr. Delpit took the stand and told an intriguing story of how he had been operating a “reverse sting” on the supposed uncle, whom he suspected of being a drug dealer. He said Edwards asked him to undertake the role of exposing the Pardon Board chairman, who Edwards thought was corrupt.

Mr. Delpit was acquitted.

Perhaps one of the best examples of what some law-enforcement officials call “that special brand of Louisiana justice” was in 1971 when the federal authorities hauled New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison into court on charges of big-money bribery.

FBI agents, with the help of one of Mr. Garrison’s longtime friends, Pershing Gervais, recorded more than 55 hours of conversations in which Mr. Garrison was told that the mob-controlled pinball machine operators in Orleans Parish needed him to help them elude what they considered unreasonable laws that limited their “take.”

Mr. Garrison was receptive, time and time again.

When he was arrested with purple dye on his hands and about $50,000 stashed in his office desk, few thought him innocent. After the federal case on direct testimony — with spicy Garrison comments and repeated demands for more money — it would have been hard to find a bet that the loquacious district attorney would go free.

But as the prosecution rested, Mr. Garrison tossed aside his attorney and received permission to handle his own defense, which gave him unbelievable opportunity to berate government witnesses. Rather than take the stand, which undoubtedly would have opened him to intense cross-examination, he offered considerable oratory.

The clincher: “The only reason,” he intoned, “that I am on trial here today is because I solved the JFK assassination.”

He was acquitted.

“They didn’t realize what they were up against,” he said that day. “Louisiana handles its own business.”

New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, reviewing the Delpit trial in light of Mr. Jefferson’s problems, wrote:

“But Jefferson has at least one big disadvantage that Delpit didn’t have to face. Delpit was tried in state court by a jury of Louisiana residents, people who understand our way of doing business. Jefferson is apt to be tried in federal court, where our ways are viewed with suspicion.”

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