Acquitted of US charges, Gov. Edwards turns to state business

With the acquittal of Gov. Edwin W. Edwards on federal racketeering and fraud charges, Louisiana has a full-time chief executive again. This comes not a moment too soon for the economically beleaguered state with the country's highest unemployment rate. Mr. Edwards took little time off to celebrate his victory Saturday in the controversial court case. He immediately turned his attention to the work of the state Legislature, which is now in midsession.

Supporters of Edwards called the acquittal justice; opponents called it a disappointment.

The governor and his four codefendants were acquitted of all 46 charges of mail fraud and racketeering that stemmed from business dealings involving state-certified hospitals and nursing homes. The dealings netted the five men $10 million.

Federal prosecutors in Louisiana's ``trial of the century'' focused not only on those specific business dealings, however, but more widely on the state's blighted image of having a history of corrupt politics.

Standing on the steps of the federal court in New Orlean after his acquittal, Edwards attacked the prosecutors' motives. He contended that his indictment, brought by United States Attorney John Volz, a Republican, was based on political vindictiveness. The governor named several other Democratic politicians who either have been indicted by Mr. Volz and later cleared, or against whom indictments were unsuccessfully sought.

``It's time for John Volz to stop using the US attorney's office for political purposes,'' Edwards said. ``He has tried to darken the name of Louisiana and its people. He used taxpayers' money, the FBI, and the whole resources of the United States of America in an effort to bring me down. What he could not do to me in the polls, he tried to do to me in the courtroom.''

Volz, whose prosecution team spent 19 months on the case, acknowledged being disappointed at the verdict, but he said he would do it all again because he believed the defendants were guilty.

This was the second trial for Edwards and his codefendants on the charges. The first trial ended in a hung jury last December, with most of the jurors favoring acquittal.

Edwards chose to present no defense in the latest case. A skilled trial lawyer himself, Edwards sought permission to make his own closing arguments to the jury, but US District Judge Marcel Livaudais, who presided over both trials, denied the request.

The jury, sequestered for six weeks, decided the case after deliberating about 12 hours over two days.

Edwards has acknowledged making nearly $2 million from the sale of state hospital and nursing-home certificates that he obtained while out of office between his second and third terms as governor. In the first trial Volz introduced evidence that Edwards had substantial gambling debts, in an attempt to show that he had a motive to take part in an alleged scheme to manipulate the state's hospital-permit approval program. Volz, however, chose not to enter the gambling evidence during the retrial.

During the retrial, the governor granted a full state pardon to former state Senate president Michael O'Keefe for his 1983 conviction on federal charges of fraud and obstruction of justice. Volz also prosecuted that case.

Meanwhile, another state politician, former US Rep. Richard Tonry (D), was convicted this month on federal charges of bribery, conspiracy, and racketeering. Mr. Tonry also spent six months in federal prison in 1977 for financial irregularities stemming from his 1976 congressional campaign.

With his trial behind him, Governor Edwards says he plans to devote his full attention to the state Legislature. He is expected to continue to push for the legalization of casino gambling and a state lottery in an effort to pull the state out of the worst fiscal crisis in its history.

Despite the Legislature's opposition to his gambling proposal, Edwards still believes it is the state's best option in its struggle to come up with a budget, which is now in serious deficit because of the depleted oil and gas economy.

In January, Edwards announced that he would call a special legislative session to enact a gambling plan, but he dropped the idea a few weeks later, when faced with opposition from lawmakers.

Largely due to falling oil prices, the state is looking at a projected shortfall of more than $800 million in revenues needed to finance its 1986-87 budget, which takes effect July 1.

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