By Bill Trott (Reuters) -Edwin Edwards, the roguishly charming Louisiana politician who scoffed at the clouds of corruption that shrouded his four terms as governor until he went to prison in 2002, died on Monday at age 93, according to a statement from current Governor John Bel Edwards. “Edwin was a larger than life figure […]
Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards is dead at 93
By Bill Trott
(Reuters) -Edwin Edwards, the roguishly charming Louisiana politician who scoffed at the clouds of corruption that shrouded his four terms as governor until he went to prison in 2002, died on Monday at age 93, according to a statement from current Governor John Bel Edwards.
“Edwin was a larger than life figure known for his wit and charm, but he will be equally remembered for being a compassionate leader who cared for the plight of all Louisianans,” the statement said. The statement did not cite a cause of death.
Edwards, a Democrat, announced on July 5 that he had entered hospice care after suffering respiratory problems for several years, according to media reports.
He served in the state legislature and U.S. House of Representatives early in his political career before going on to run for Louisiana governor, taking office in 1972 for the first of four terms.
Edwards was convicted in May 2000 of extortion in the awarding of state casino licenses.
His conviction was not enough to make him give up on politics though, and after serving more than eight years in prison and being freed in 2011, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014 at age 87 but received less than 38% of the vote.
Dashing, witty and an inveterate womanizer in his heyday, Edwards was known as “Fast Eddie” and stood out even in a state with a history of colorful graft-prone politicians. By his own count, Edwards had been the subject of 22 investigations but he reveled in a reputation of invincibility until being convicted of extortion.
During a successful election campaign for governor in 1983, he boasted, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”
Edwards practiced a brand of populism not unlike colorful former governor Huey P. Long, who dominated Louisiana in the late 1920s and 1930s before he was assassinated, and endeared himself to voters with a combination of personality, job patronage and a share-the-wealth philosophy.
He also was a big-time gambler who sometimes paid off his Las Vegas debts with suitcases of cash – and casinos would eventually prove to be his downfall.
‘VOTE FOR THE CROOK’
In 2000 Edwards was convicted of extortion in the awarding of state casino licenses, sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined $250,000, ending a long pursuit by prosecutors.
Edwards had been tried in 1985 during his third term as governor for allegedly giving special treatment to companies dealing with state hospitals but the case ended in a mistrial. He was acquitted in a retrial the next year.
Before that there had been accusations of accepting illegal campaign contributions and a former associate said state agency jobs had been for sale during Edwards’ governorship.
When he was a congressman in the 1970s he had accepted gifts from a South Korean rice broker who was investigated for trying to bribe legislators.
Dressed in sharp suits with his silver hair styled back, Edwards joked about his reputation. Once when the Louisiana economy was struggling, he told voters that if they did not return him to office, “there’ll be nothing left to steal.”
Edwards was the son of a sharecropper, born Aug. 7, 1927, near Marksville, Louisiana. After graduating from the Louisiana State University law school, he served in the state legislature and the U.S. House before running for governor.
He took office in 1972, thanks in part to support from Blacks, who would become a reliable Edwards voting bloc, and was re-elected. He benefited greatly from the state’s thriving oil industry, which allowed him to balance the budget while spending generously on education and other public programs.
Talk about illegal campaign contributions and selling state jobs resulted in no formal charges and did little harm to Edwards’ popularity.
He was barred by law from seeking a third consecutive term in 1979 but Edwards was ready four years later and voters returned him to office. By then, however, the oil industry was struggling, which combined with the trials over the hospital deals to dent his image.
Edwards lost the 1987 election but made another comeback in 1991, which turned out to be one of the oddest governor’s races in U.S. history. Edwards’ opponent was David Duke, who had been a prominent national neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader and had surprisingly defeated the incumbent governor in the Republican primary.
Louisiana voters were left with an embarrassing choice between Edwards’ questionable ethics and Duke’s white supremacist sentiments. The dilemma was captured on a popular pro-Edwards bumper sticker – “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”
Edwards won comfortably and championed casino gambling in his fourth term. He appointed members of the board that granted casino ownership licenses and prosecutors said he eventually was selling his influence over the gaming industry in return for $3 million.
Edwards’ son Stephen was convicted with him.
Edwards and his first wife, Elaine, had four children during a 40-year marriage. After divorcing Elaine in 1989, he was 66 when he married 29-year-old Candy Picou in 1994. They divorced in 2004 after Edwards went to prison.
At age 83, he wed Trina Grimes Scott, then 32, and they had a short-lived cable TV reality show titled “The Governor’s Wife.” Their relationship started after she read his biography and began sending him letters in prison.
In August 2013 she gave birth to Edwards’ fifth child.
(Reporting by Bill Trott, Jonathan Allen in New York and Gabriella Borter in WashingtonEditing by Alistair Bell)