BATON ROUGE, La. - Former Gov. Edwin Edwards firmly and defiantly denied taking payoffs from a former casino owner Wednesday as he spent his second day on the witness stand trying to counter weeks of tapes and testimony in his federal racketeering trial.
"I can look you in the eye, this jury and my maker and tell you I never demanded anything from Bobby Guidry in my life," Edwards told Assistant U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. It was a reference to former Treasure Chest casino owner Robert Guidry, one of the first and most damaging witnesses in the case against Edwards.
During seven hours of tense, often combative testimony, Edwards and Letten clashed over Guidry's credibility, the significance of his son, Stephen Edwards' fingerprints on an envelope full of cash and over interpretations of secretly made tapes of Edwards' private conversations.
One brief but pointed exchange centered on the importance of whether co-defendant Andrew Martin used the word "get" or "getting" on one of those tapes.
"I hate to have my whole life hang on a couple of words," said the 72-year-old former governor, who faces a possible 350-year prison sentence if convicted on all counts.
Edwards, his son Stephen, their friend Martin and four others are on trial. They are accused of taking part in a series of extortion and bribery schemes involving the licensing of riverboat casinos before and after Edwards' fourth and final term ended in January 1996.
Trial began with jury selection Jan. 10. Testimony started Jan. 26.
Edwards' cross examination began Tuesday and will continue Thursday.
Most of Wednesday's questions and answers centered on Guidry's claim that he paid the Edwardses and Martin $1.5 million in extortion money.
Guidry had testified that he tossed a bag with a $65,000 payment into Stephen Edwards' car on April 8, 1997.
Letten asked Edwards if that transaction took place.
"Neither I nor Mr. Santini, who was following us, saw that," Edwards answered, a reference to FBI agent Geoffrey Santini's testimony that he never saw the exchange even though he was staking out the men.
Letten asked if Edwards got a $33,000 share from that transaction.
"He didn't get it, so I didn't get it," Edwards answered.
Letten then noted that on April 28, twenty days after the alleged payoff, FBI agents seized an envelope filled with $33,000 in cash from Edwards' safe. Stephen Edwards' fingerprints were on the envelope, Letten said.
"What an unfortunate coincidence my son had his fingerprints on an envelope in my safe," Edwards said.
Edwards admitted discussing a legally questionable plan to get money out of Guidry in a Feb. 27, 1997, taped conversation. The plan, Edwards said, was to be used only because Guidry owed Stephen and Martin money for legitimate lobbying, legal and consultant work.
"Bobby Guidry wasn't paying us extortion money," Edwards said. "I was looking for some vehicle for Bobby Guidry to start paying my son and Andrew, and I was looking to get a little of it myself."
Guidry testified under a plea agreement in January that he paid Edwin and Stephen Edwards and Martin $100,000 a month for 15 months for help in getting a riverboat casino license. The payments, Guidry said, started in February 1996, one month after Edwards left office, but Guidry said he sealed the deal with Edwards in a Baton Rouge hotel room in 1994, midway through Edwards' last term.
The payments continued through April 1997, when FBI agents raided Edwards' home and office, Guidry said.
Guidry had said he was angry about the size of the payments and sometimes left cash for Martin to retrieve in trash bins outside a Metairie restaurant or behind a hospital.
"Mr. Letten, the Dumpster may have gotten it, but I didn't," Edwards said.
Letten noted that on the taped conversation the Edwardses and Martin were heard discussing a way to rent a tugboat to Guidry and then hike up the rental fee. They also discussed making up work and charging Guidry for it.
"Then you've got some showable income," Edwards said on tape.
Edwards testified that Guidry had wanted to pay the consulting and attorney fees in cash, but Stephen Edwards and Martin wanted contracts for their work and to be paid by check.
Letten said the plan involving the tugboat, which was never implemented, called for the men to break the law.
"It's not the first time in my life I thought of something and then realized on sober reflection that it's not the thing to do," Edwards said.
Martin also is heard on the tape saying, "you get 30-30-30." Letten asked whether that was a reference to the approximate payments the men were receiving from Guidry.
Edwards said he had no idea what Martin was talking about.
Then he said prosecutors overlooked the fact that Martin used the word "get," instead of "getting."
It was evident, Edwards said, that Martin was referring to what the men would make on the boat deal, not on what prosecutors said the men already were getting from Guidry.
Edwards also denied Wednesday that he ever worked out a plan with another defendant, Cecil Brown, to take payoffs from a group of Alton, Ill., investors who were seeking a casino license.
The men testified that they paid Brown tens of the thousands of dollars to be their consultant on the project mainly because he boasted of his relationship with Edwards.
On taped conversations, Brown is heard telling the men that he and Edwards are partners in the deal.
"I would have stopped him in a New York second if I heard that," said Edwards, who added that he never authorized Brown to speak for him.
Edwards also denied that he had any influence in the riverboat gaming commission, which was replaced after Edwards left office by the Louisiana Gaming Control Board.
Letten alleged that Edwards and his political allies, including state Sen. Greg Tarver, former Senate president Sammy Nunez and former House Speaker John Alario, controlled the riverboat gaming commission during Edwards' last term. Tarver is a co-defendant in the trial.
"Isn't it a fact," Letten asked Edwards, "that you fixed the commission vote?"
Edwards denied it and said he had even asked the commission to hold one license back so it could be used for a proposed land-based casino in New Orleans, but the commission issued the last license anyway.
He also denied that he supplied one commissioner with a list of boats he wanted approved, but said he and the commissioner wrote out a list together.
Last month, the former chairman of the commission, Ken Pickering, testified that his own suggestions for approval of riverboats were defeated during a 1993 meeting. The commission approved a list "approved by the governor," Pickering said.