Edwards's retrial comes as Louisiana tries to solve budget woes

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Round 2 in the trial of Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards comes at an awkward time for the state. It is expected to overlap with the three-month legislative session, which begins April 21, by at least a month. Some lawmakers say this could tie the governor's hands. During the legislative session, Louisiana lawmakers face the task of pulling the financially troubled state out of one of the worst fiscal crises in its history. Plummeting oil prices have caused a severe drop in Louisiana's severance-tax revenues.

Governor Edwards, who says he expects the trial to end in time for him to play a key role in the legislative session, and several legislators have been at odds in recent months over a controversial plan to legalize gambling. The governor proposed the plan as a way to help replenish the state treasury. More and more state legislators have expressed willingness to get their fiscal house in order without using gambling revenue.

Jury selection for the retrial, which began on Monday, could prove lengthy. Edwards's first trial, involving fraud and racketeering charges stemming from his granting of hospital permits, ended in a hung jury and was declared a mistrial on Dec. 18. However, by a 10-to-2 vote the jury had leaned heavily toward acquittal on most of the 50 charges.

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Impartial jurors may be tough to find this time because of the extensive media coverage of the first trial. Sequestration of this jury for the entire trial may also make it difficult to find jurors willing to serve. Michael Fawer, one of the governor's attorneys, is concerned that the jury will not be a ``true cross section'' due to sequestration.

During the first trial, the jury was sequestered only during deliberations, at a cost to the federal government of more than $17,000 in hotel accommodations and food. This time, the expense is expected to exceed $100,000.

Although the number of charges has been reduced, the accusation remains the same: Edwards and his four co-defendants, including his brother Marion, used their political influence to gain state certification for hospital and nursing home projects in which they held interests. Five of the projects were sold for about $10 million.

The stylish Cajun governor announced a detailed plan for legalized gambling two weeks after his first trial ended, during which his substantial gambling debts were an issue. He also called for a special legislative session to act on the proposal. The special session had been set for early February, but the governor canceled it when polls indicated little support among lawmakers.

Since then, Edwards has taken a statewide stumping tour to promote his plan to a more receptive public, announcing that ``drastic cuts'' in state social-service spending is the alternative.

Gambling may be ruled out as an issue in the retrial. US District Judge Marcel Livaudais Jr. is reconsidering his ruling last year to admit evidence concerning Edwards's gambling habits, which the prosecution contends are vital to the case.

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