et al. Trial Edwin Edwards: 2000
Three Months Of Testimony
Members of the state Gaming Control Board, and the former Riverboat Gaming Commission, denied that anyone had tried to influence their decisions. Even so, the government introduced testimony and wiretap evidence demonstrating that Edwin Edwards had made many telephone calls in connection with the extortion scheme. Specific acts of extortion against LRGC, NORC, Jazz Enterprises, Belle of Baton Rouge, Players Lake Charles Riverboat, Treasure Chest Riverboat Casino, and Hollywood/DeBartolo Riverboat Casino were charged. Tape-recorded conversations made it clear that Edwards's associates claimed that no license could be granted without his consent, and that payments and/or participation in the casino operations would have to be arranged if he were to support the applications.
Testimony and evidence stretched over three months in early 2000. Don Semesky, an Internal Revenue Service agent, used a chart to demonstrate that Edwards spent $872,000 more in cash than he reported as income in the period 1986-1997. Using Edwards' own testimony in an unrelated trial, Semesky claimed that Edwards spent at least $704,000 more than he could account for. His increased 1996 spending coincided with the extortion payments reported by Guidry. Part of the surplus cash was $383,500 seized from Edwards's safe deposit box. His defense claimed that amount was a legitimate payment from DeBartolo. Prosecutors and defense attorneys disputed whether the $400,000 payment, which DeBartolo had reported to the IRS, could be regarded as legitimate or not.
The defense attorneys argued that the federal government used its power to construct a case built on wiretaps and testimony from individuals who pleabargained in exchange for their testimony. Bugged offices, paid expert witnesses, testimony from people who admittedly broke the law, and FBI tails on suspects added up to a government conspiracy, the defense charged. Tape recordings were edited and played out of context to construct a plot for the jury, and a known criminal made at least one set of tapes. According to the defense, the payments from Richard Shelter to Stephen Edwards were merely legitimate repayments on an investment in a failed pizza venture. Shelter had ledgers that included evidence of other transactions, some apparently illegal, and the defense charged that Shelter testified for the government in exchange for immunity.
Jury deliberations stretched over several weeks, and the judge dismissed one juror for smuggling notes and documents into the deliberation room. Ultimately, however, the jury appeared convinced by the testimony of Eddie DeBartolo and Robert Guidry, who both testified that Edwards extorted money from them, and from Richard Shelter who claimed he funneled over $500,000 to the Edwards group from the Lake Charles Players Casino. Five of the seven accused were found guilty on May 9, 2000. Judge Polozola handed down sentences on January 8, 2001. Former governor Edwards was visibly shocked when the judge sentenced him to 10 years plus a $250,000 fine. His son Stephen received the second most severe sentence: seven years and a $60,000 fine.
Although Judge Polozola originally intended for the convicted conspirators to begin serving their sentences immediately, another judge granted Edwards and the others freedom while their appeals were pending. Edwards claimed 21 grounds for appeal, including the fact that the mail fraud charges that linked all of the convictions were themselves dismissed. While the appeals were pending, Brown and Edwards were accused in a separate corruption case for having arranged a favorable settlement for Cascade Insurance Company, which had been declared insolvent, in exchange for payoffs.
As of mid-2001, the appeals of the convictions in the casino bribery case were still pending.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Bridges, Tyler. Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2001.
Brotherton, John. A Fistful of Kings. Shear's Group, 2000.