A Reckoning In The Bayou

His luck finally ran out last week. Seventy-two-year-old former governor Edwin W. Edwards was convicted of extorting almost $3 million from companies that applied for riverboat-casino licenses. A craps player noted for his love of beautiful women and his use of gambling aliases such as "T. Wong," Edwards once declared that to get in trouble with Louisiana voters he would have to be found "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

In the end, it wasn't the voters he had to worry about. Edwards, who won a fourth term as governor after being cleared in the second of two federal trials (the first ended in a hung jury), has also been the target of 22 grand-jury investigations. Last week, after the jury found him guilty of 17 counts, Edwards said, "The Chinese have a saying: if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river. I suppose the Feds sat by the river long enough, so here comes my body." Then he joined his family at home for crawfish etouffee and his favorite television show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

On excerpts of audiotapes made from federal bugs in Edwards's house, he could be heard running down the mayor of New Orleans as a "blackmail artist" and helping plan the surprise birthday party of former San Francisco 49ers owner--and Edwards friend--Edward DeBartolo Jr., who last year pleaded guilty to a felony for failing to report that Edwards had extorted $400,000 from him. The conversation in which DeBartolo says Edwards shook him down was not on the tapes. Neither was the one in which another former friend, Robert Guidry, agreed to pay more than $1.4 million to Edwards and two codefendants, including Edwards's son Stephen. But the jury apparently believed the testimony of DeBartolo and of Guidry, who told of stuffing hundreds of thousands of dollars into garbage bags. Asked by defense attorneys how he had such easy access to so much money, Guidry said he kept more than $1 million "for incidentals" at home in a secret compartment in his Jacuzzi and in his freezer under some wild ducks. Edwards claimed he never got a dime from Guidry and that the cash from DeBartolo--received after Edwards left office--was payment for legitimate work.

A onetime child evangelist, Edwards grew up to be a charming populist Democrat who paid off his first campaign debt with a $50,000-a-head trip to Paris that included dinner at Versailles, a gambling excursion to Monte Carlo and 14-karat-gold lapel pins featuring his profile above the moniker "The Sun King." Edwards now faces more than 20 years in prison, but courtroom observers were intrigued by a cordial conversation between Edwards and Eddie Jordan, the U.S. attorney. Jury selection for yet another federal trial, for insurance fraud, is scheduled to begin in June. "I did discuss with him the possibility of resolving the other case," Jordan said. Could the old pol cut a deal in the insurance case in return for a lenient sentence in this one? The crapshooter just may be rolling the dice one last time.