Trial cost Louisiana governor $10,000 a day, maybe his career. But Edwards remains sure he'll be acquitted of fraud and racketeering charges

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The 12-week fraud and racketeering trial of Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards is coming to a close. While his demeanor may belie the jury's verdict, the governor emerges from federal court as confident as he was when he walked in. From the start, Governor Edwards offered 2 to 1 odds against conviction in the 50-count indictment brought against him last February.

The trial's highlight came when the governor took the stand on Tuesday of last week for cross-examination by the prosecution, led by US Attorney John Volz. Spectators from across the state drove to New Orleans and heard what they are accustomed to hearing: vintage Governor Edwards. The quick-witted Cajun governor rolled with the flow in a match involving as much style as substance.

At one point, Edwards responded to questioning by telling the prosecution it had not been able to ``present one piece of evidence'' to show his involvement in illegal activities involving a $10 million hospital scheme despite ``subpoenas issued by the sackful'' and ``truckloads of documents.''

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When attorney Volz asked the governor whether there was any ``personal animosity'' between them, Edwards responded, ``I am under oath, Mr. Volz.'' Edwards has suggested the trial is the result of a vendetta Volz is carrying out against him.

During a mostly lackluster trial, the prosecution has attempted to prove that Edwards and seven others illegaly obtained state hospital approvals before Edwards took office in 1984, and sold the lucrative permits, which netted them $10 million, to national health chains eager to develop in Louisiana. Developers are entitled to substantial federal payments through Medicare and Medicaid.

Edwards admits he received $2 million in the hospital and nursing home deal, but has steadfastly maintained throughout the trial that the transaction was ``legitimate business'' he performed as a ``private citizen'' before taking public office. He says his conduct in the transactions was ``proper'' and has attempted to portray himself only as a ``smart and successful businessman.''

Volz has tried to convince the jury of something else: that the governor and his codefendants manipulated the state's health bureaucracy for personal profit. Then, by concealing the governor's role in the enterprise (between 1980 to 1984 when he was out of office between his second and third term) they defrauded Louisiana citizens of their right to a fairly administered hospital approval program.

Prosecutors contend that Edwards, once back in office, was essentially bribed to grant special favors to the codefendants to benefit the conspiracy -- such as exempting the hospital projects in question from a statewide moratorium on the new permits.

The prosecution also presented evidence of Edwards's nearly $2 million in gambling debts in Nevada, as a motive for needing the $2 million he received from the sale of the state-approved health venture.

In a further attempt to show a pattern of concealment, prosecutors introduced the governor's 1982 federal tax return indicating no gambling transactions. Edwards also failed to report his $2 million earnings in his campaign disclosure statement.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence, if not the most damaging, came early in the trial when casino employees testified to flying, by private plane, to Louisiana to collect gambling debts incurred by Edwards in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, Nevada. They said they picked up suitcases stuffed with nearly $1 million in cash from the governor and told about his using aliases such as ``T. Wong'' in signing markers at the gaming tables.

When the prosecution rested its case, however, it still was not a closed-book case. Both sides agreed on the basic facts of the case, but each differed about whether the defendants acted illegally.

The governor's lawyer, James F. Neal of Tennessee, deftly handled evidence presented by prosecutors, at times undercutting key prosecution claims by presenting witnesses with equally convincing testimony to the contrary.

Jurors listened as Mr. Neal questioned Edwards earlier in the week, bringing out the governor's humble beginnings as a sharecropper's son and his rise as the state's most popular governor since Huey P. Long in the late 1920s.

Neal is a man accustomed to winning celebrated court cases. In 1964, as special assistant to then US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he won the first conviction ever against Jimmy Hoffa.

He successfully prosecuted H. R. Haldemann, John Ehrlichman, and others in the Watergate case, and defended Ford Motor Company in the Pinto gas tank explosion case. He also represented Elvis Presley's doctor, Fritz Ingram.

So it appears Edwards has cause to be confident.

The trial, nevertheless, has been a costly one. Edwards has told reporters his defense is costing him $10,000 a day.

If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum sentence on all 50 counts of more than 250 years in prison.

Some political analysts say, win or lose, the trial has cost Edwards his political career as well.

Independent pollster Ed Renwick, director of The Institute of Politics at Loyola University in New Orleans, says he continues to believe that Edwards is out, despite what Edwards has already said publicly about running for governor again in 1987.

Still ahead for the governor, as Mr. Renwick points out, is a probable tax evasion challenge by the Internal Revenue Service. It also appears likely a federal grand jury in Baton Rouge will inquire into allegations that Edwards has questionable ties to Texaco Inc., and other oil companies.

Closing arguments in the case are scheduled for today.

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