In Campaign For Congress, Edwin Edwards Needs To Prove He’s Not, In Fact, A Crook

When Edwin Edwards, the 86-year-old, four-term Governor, four-term Congressman, former resident of the Federal Correctional Facility in Oakdale, Louisiana, announced his candidacy for the United States Congress today, the reaction among the Louisiana political commentariat was about what you’d expect. Edwards, paradoxically, is both hugely divisive and, despite the fact that he was convicted of a laundry list of felonies, enduringly popular.

With the exception of Garrett Graves, who actually praised Edwards’s accomplishments and career, Republicans faithfully stuck to the same talking points: Edwin Edwards is an embarrassment, a felon, a corrupt, good ol’ boy who is unfit to serve. Another Republican challenger, State Senator Dan Claitor, tweeted, “Unlike last time, don’t vote for the crook. It’s important,” a reference to the Edwards’s unofficial campaign slogan when he ran for Governor against David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Although news stories of Edwards’s announcement have attracted hundreds of comments from supporters, Democratic elected officials have, thus far, kept quiet, except former Congressman Charlie Melancon, who said he encouraged Edwards to run.

Notably, however, the most biting criticism of Edwards was from Bob Mann, a columnist for The Times-Picayune and a former aide to Senator Russell Long, Senator John Breaux, and Governor Kathleen Blanco. Mann, whose Democratic bona fides are unquestionable, excoriated Edwards for his “farcical” and vainglorious campaign, arguing that while it is likely the former Governor will earn a spot in the run-off, he’s guaranteed to lose in a landslide. “My dog has a better chance of winning a seat in this very Republican district,” Mann writes. “He (Edwards) cannot run for office and truthfully tell us he really cares about Louisiana. If he cared about us, he’d stay home and raise his child. If he cared, he’d go fishing. If he cared, he’d ask for forgiveness for making us a national laughingstock for so many years.”

A cursory review of popular Louisiana progressives on social media reveals that Mann is not the only Democrat who believes Edwards is running a vanity campaign and that, ultimately, he hurts the Louisiana Democratic Party more than he helps.

At this point, though, unlike my friend Bob Mann, I think it’s premature to predict that Edwards will be defeated in a landslide. But if Edwards is to be competitive, then he needs to prove, convincingly, that he is not, in fact, a crook. Edwards seemed to acknowledge this himself. Quoting from The Times-Picayune (bold mine):

At one point, a member of the audience asked how he would respond to opponents who say his run will engender negative national attention and be “an embarrassment” for the state.

“They said that last time I ran for governor, and I don’t know, I hardly think it is an embarrassment to the state. It might be something the state should be proud of because forgiveness, understanding and second chances are important in life and in politics,” said Edwards.

Edwards also discussed the more than eight years he spent in federal prison; as he has in the past, he denied wrongdoing during his years as governor: “(The trial) was not about Edwin Edwards the governor. It was about Edwin Edwards who was a friend of the people, who for reasons of their own testified falsely about our relationship after I was out of office.”

It may seem like an almost impossible task for a man who spent eight years behind bars after being convicted of seventeen felony counts to convince his fellow citizens that he was, in fact, not guilty.

But it’s not impossible.

*****

Remember those “Vote for the Crook. It’s Important.” bumper stickers from the 1991 campaign? It was a joke.

Edwards had been tried and was ultimately acquitted on charges that he had accepted bribes in exchange for helping companies seeking business with state hospitals. Edwards consistently claimed that the case was politically motivated by John Volz, a Republican U.S. Attorney, and people associated with the Louisiana Republican Party, and in hindsight, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Volz’s first attempt resulted in a mistrial. During the second trial, after the prosecution put on its case, Edwards’s defense team immediately rested without calling a single witness; in other words, the prosecution actually convinced the jury that Edwards was not guilty.

But, in many ways, the damage was done to Edwards’s reputation.

Even if his supporters were “trolling” Republicans with their “Vote for the Crook” stickers (their candidate, after all, was a former member of the KKK), Edwards, despite his acquittal, would forever be known as a Governor indicted for federal crimes.

*****

In 2000, when the federal government finally secured convictions against Edwin Edwards, their case was significantly stronger and much more convincing.

But there is a reason that President George H.W. Bush, President Bill Clinton, former Louisiana Governor Dave Treen, and numerous other high-profile Republicans and Democrats supported a Presidential pardon for Edwards.

I’m not saying Edwards is innocent, only that his argument goes something like this:

Both the investigation and the trial, to borrow a word from Bob Mann, were farcical.

The government built much of its case against Edwards on the theory that he, his son, and a few of his friends engaged in an elaborate criminal conspiracy to extort money from people seeking casino licenses. To prove this, the government engaged in extensive wiretapping, struck deals with alleged co-conspirators in exchange for favorable testimony, relied heavily on questionable hearsay evidence, and intimidated more than sixty people to remain silent by listing them as “unindicted co-conspirators.”

The government could not prove, at all, that Governor Edwards had ever determined the granting of a single license. Licenses were granted by a commission, after a thorough vetting by Louisiana State Police and extensive deliberation, not unilaterally by the Governor.

But the government did prove that wealthy businessmen, with whom they struck deals in exchange for favorable testimony, gave money for lobbying and legal services to people they perceived to be close to Edwards, none of whom, it’s worth pointing out, actually worked for Edwards. The government argued that these businessmen were somehow bribing Governor Edwards; it appears, however, that they were more likely just throwing money to anyone and everyone who could help them secure a license for a business that would yield tens of millions of dollars a year in profit.

The government’s most damning evidence against Edwards was the testimony of Edward DeBartolo, the owner of the San Francisco 49ers. When Edwards returned to his law practice, DeBartolo paid him $400,000 for assistance in securing a casino license. In exchange, Edwards worked the phones for him. Edwards, it’s important to note, was a private citizen, and according to him, he had considered DeBartolo a personal friend and business partner in the proposed casino development.

DeBartolo was, at the time, the first NFL owner to ever be indicted. Because of the indictment, he risked losing his football team. He quickly entered into a plea bargain with the government, testified against Edwards, and, in so doing, saved his stake in the 49ers. There’s good reason to question DeBartolo’s credibility; he had everything to lose and almost nothing to gain.

As former US Attorney Jim Letten seems to admit in a brief filed on appeal, Edwards’s mistake was that he didn’t register as a lobbyist. If Edwards had, it’s likely DeBartolo would have never mattered.

To make a long story short, the government’s case against Edwards was that businessmen who wanted casino licenses hired people they thought were close to decision-makers to help them with legal work and lobbying. That’s not exactly unusual, and considering licenses were given by an independent commission (and that no one in that commission was ever convicted of a crime), it’s not exactly proof of a large-scale criminal conspiracy either. It’s only a bribe if you’re paying someone with real authority. DeBartolo paid a former Governor; the others paid Stephen Edwards, the Governor’s son, for legal work (which they acknowledge was performed), and two people who were friends with the Governor. Some of them received their licenses; some didn’t. At least one of the government’s cooperating witnesses claimed he agreed to provide Edwards with a stake in his casino after receiving his license, but his testimony was deeply problematic and bizarre.

No doubt, the government did demonstrate that some people associated with Edwin Edwards were shady: They seemed to be cognizant that they were being watched by the government (they were); they conducted business in backrooms and hotels and, of course, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. And, I know this may be shocking, the men who sought casino licenses preferred to pay people in cash.

*****

Fourteen years later, Edwards seeks redemption. I think he can make a compelling argument that he was railroaded by overzealous prosecutors who relied on the power of their positions to negotiate favorable testimony, a corrupt procedural and judicial process, and a biased and overtly partisan judge who improperly dismissed a juror- Juror 68- who was leaning toward acquittal.

But ultimately, that’s an argument Edwards himself must make.

There is a final irony here: The two prosecutors who secured the conviction against Edwards, Jim Letten and Eddie Jordan, both resigned from their offices after accusations of unethical and potentially illegal activities surfaced.

It reminds me of something Edwards himself has said often. “There’s an old Chinese proverb that says, ‘If you wait by the river long enough, you will see the bodies of your dead enemies float by.'”