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Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Edwards reports to federal prison in Fort Worth

By ANITA CHANG

Associated Press Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - For the next 10 years, former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards will work for 12 cents an hour.

His diet will consist of food items such as "fishwich sandwiches."

Edwards turned himself in to the federal prison in Fort Worth on Monday about 1 p.m. to begin serving his prison term for a May 2000 racketeering, extortion and fraud conviction in a scheme to rig the casino licensing process.

"I appreciate the fact the court system and prison system have allowed me to self-surrender," the 75-year-old four-term governor said as he appeared at the prison gates dressed in a jogging suit and shoes before entering the low-security facility. "I will be a model prisoner as I was a model citizen."

Even with the prison building looming over his shoulder, Edwards maintained that he was wrongly convicted.

"It is the system. It's a good system. In this case it went awry, but I will not be the last person to visit this gate undeservedly," he said.

Edwards was found guilty, along with son Stephen and three other men, after his fourth and final term in office, which ended in 1996. Edwards has continuously fought his convictions.

"I was absolutely convinced the 5th Circuit would reverse it. There's no justification at all why they wouldn't reverse it," he said.

Edwards is now appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court refused to let him remain free while determining if it will hear his case. The court takes up only a tiny fraction of the cases it receives.

"I'm optimistic because what happened to me has only happened in the fifth district," Edwards said, pointing to a disparity between the rulings of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and other districts.

Legal issues include the anonymity of jurors, the dismissal of a juror, and the legality of certain wiretaps.

Edwards has repeatedly said that even under the assumption that his convictions are valid, he never hurt the state or its residents.

"No one has ever suggested that there is a penny missing from the state treasury," he said a-week-and-a half ago during an Associated Press interview.

"I want to reiterate that it does not have to do with me doing anything wrong as governor," Edwards said Monday.

Acting U.S. Attorney Jim Letten of New Orleans, who was the chief prosecutor on the case, scoffed at that statement.

"That is probably as bald a lie as anyone has ever told," he said.

Letten said there was ample evidence presented at trial that Edwards used his power as governor to manipulate the licensing of riverboat casinos.

Letten added his view that Edwards' vanity and concern for his legacy as governor cost him a chance to draw a lesser prison term before his case ever went to trial.

He said Edwards offered to plea guilty in the fall of 1997 to a plea bargain as long as prosecutors removed any reference to the extortion beginning before he left office from the "factual basis" document used in the agreement.

Prosecutors refused to remove the reference, Letten said.

Edwards, the most powerful and dominant politician in Louisiana since Huey Long, has been the subject of about two dozen investigations and had won every battle with federal prosecutors until two years ago.

Edwards' son Stephen reported to a prison Monday more than 300 miles away in Beaumont.

Edwards served four terms as governor between 1972 and 1996 and built a reputation as a deft politician who helped modernize state government and reconfigure the tax structure to take advantage of the state's oil riches.

However, public policy took a sideline to stories of Edwards' high living and battles with federal prosecutors that extended throughout his political career.

Edwards was acquitted on racketeering charges in the 1980s and acquitted in October 2000 on fraud charges related to the liquidation of a failed insurance company.

The first Louisiana governor sent to prison was Richard Leche, who served 3 1/2 years in the 1940s for mail fraud.

Three other men were convicted with Edwards and his son -- businessman Bobby Johnson, cattleman Cecil Brown and former Edwards aide Andrew Martin.

Johnson reported to a separate Texas prison Monday. Brown and Martin, who were convicted in separate cases, already are serving sentences in federal prisons.

Edwards was driven to the prison by his youngest son David, 43, after flying into Fort Worth Monday morning. Edwards said he and his son stopped at a Chili's Restaurant for a lunch of hamburgers and vanilla ice cream before reporting to the prison.

When asked how he prepared himself for his sentence, Edwards said with a straight face: "I kept saying I wouldn't have to face the press again."

He said he plans to work on his memoirs while in prison. So far, the book is untitled.

"I haven't decided yet," Edwards said. "I don't know how I'm going to end it."

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