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Louisiana politics is hot as Cajun food. Governor's mistrial latest chapter in history of spicy politics

By Kathleen MulvihillSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 20, 1985



New Orleans

Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards is back in the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge today after his 14-week fraud and racketeering trial in New Orleans ended in a hung jury on Wednesday. Louisiana's image in general has suffered from the trial, declared a mistrial, say some state legislators. The proceedings drew negative national attention to the Bayou State, and particularly to its reputation involving political chicanery.

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Perhaps one of the governor's replies, answered in jest to a reporter's question, is indicative of a ``politics as usual'' stance in the Edwards administration. When asked what he had to say about people who thought he was ``guilty . . . but that [prosecutors] just weren't smart enough to catch him,'' Mr. Edwards replied: ``They're half right.'' And when asked if he would continue to gamble (which was an issue in his trial), he answered, ``I'll take a chance.''

The more serious question is how long will Louisianians bet on the Cajun governor who seems invincible? Until now, he has escaped indictments in numerous grand-jury investigations.

Local political analysts say the governor's political career has been irreversibly damaged by the trial and may be over. If a recent statewide poll taken by independent pollsters Silas Lee and Associates is any indication, the governor appears at best to be a fallen angel. At his posttrial news conference Wednesday, Edwards repeated his intention to run for governor in 1987. Yet the statewide poll indicated he would come in third if he were to run today for office. Forty-four percent of those polled gav e Edwards unfavorable responses.

Historically, Louisianians have been known for tolerating what some have called a ``respectable amount'' of corruption in government. ``We have always had our legacy of political folk heroes and Governor Edwards, to a large extent, epitomizes the ideology of politicians we come to expect in Louisiana,'' says pollster Lee. He ticked off a number of state officials who in the last year have been indicted, including a New Orleans city councilman and the lieutenant governor.

Edwards's personal style, Cajun wit, and uncanny ability to remember names and faces has won him enormous popularity in the past. He has also proved an effective leader in the legislature, producing results in government.

The opinions of some Louisiana citizens indicate that these feelings for the governor linger on: ``He's such a scoundrel, but we all love him, don't we?'' said one. Said another: ``Our image may be disgraced throughout the country, but not in Louisiana. That's Louisiana politics.''

With the trial out of the way for the time being, Edwards appears to be stepping full stride into Louisiana politics. He said he would call a special legislative session beginning Jan. 19, during which he would announce a plan to help revitalize the city of New Orleans, boost the economy of the state, and reduce taxes.

The state faces its worst recession in decades, and has an unemployment rate of nearly 14 percent, compared with about 7 percent nationwide. It is also embarrassed by a deplorable education system, blamed in part for lack of business development.

The hung jury, which deliberated for six days, was split by 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal on most of the 50 counts charged the governor and 11 to 1 for acquittal on the remaining counts.

``I have just won the 16th and most important election of my life and by the greatest margin ever,'' Mr. Edwards told reporters, referring to the mistrial decision. During his 30-year political career, he has won all of his elections.

But the case may not be over. US Attorney John Volz, chief prosecutor in the case, is considering retrial possibly in the spring. Several motions are now pending in the case, including those by the defense counsel urging US District Judge Marcel Livaudais Jr. for a directed verdict of acquittal based on the favorable vote.

The jury did reach a partial verdict on Monday for Marion Edwards, the governor's brother and codefendant. He was acquitted of 41 counts of mail and wire fraud. He still faces nine more counts, including racketeering. Earlier last week, the judge cleared three codefendants.

The governor and seven codefendants were indicted last February in an alleged scheme to manipulate the state's hospital approval program for financial gain. The governor was accused of forming an enterprise in 1982 (before he took office) with two former business associates -- and later involved others -- who, according to the charges, profited from the sale of fraudulently obtained state hospital and nursing home approvals. They netted $10 million in the deal.

Prosecutors said the governor's role was concealed in that he later took actions while in office to benefit the enterprise.