NEW ORLEANS - An unapologetic former Gov. Edwin Edwards returned to an old haunt Saturday to defend his four terms as governor.
In his first formal news conference since leaving federal prison, Edwards showed sparks of his legendary wit even as he battled a hoarse voice. Edwards served his four terms between 1972 and 1996.
Edwards introduced his 32-year-old bride, Trina Grimes Scott, deflected speculation about a new baby, defended his political record, and criticized Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Edwards said no one ever accused of him of stealing money from the state. He said he went to federal prison for extortion, not for selling riverboat licenses. He blamed his conviction on a federal judge and on friends used by the government to testify against him.
Edwards was incarcerated in a federal prison for his role in a bribery and extortion scheme to rig riverboat casino licenses during his fourth term. Earlier in July, he completed six months of home detention and regular reporting to a Baton Rouge halfway house.
Rapidly tracing his lengthy history of encounters with federal prosecutors, the former governor said he was acquitted twice and freed from charges by a hung jury before reaching a Baton Rouge judge who gave him no chance of receiving a fair trial. The reference was a pointed shot at U.S. District Judge Frank J. Polozola, who presided over the trial that sent Edwards to prison for eight years.
The criticism was brief. With the punch delivered, Edwards shifted to the price of oil and his reputation as the gambling governor, a reputation he said is greatly exaggerated.
“I didn’t come here to criticize federal judges,” Edwards said. “That’s not a good practice, especially if you’re alive.”
The setting for the news conference was the Hotel Monteleone, the scene of happier chapters in Edwards’ life. The French Quarter landmark repeatedly served as his campaign headquarters. On Friday, he married Scott in one of the hotel’s suites.
“Welcome to the Monteleone,” Anna Edwards, the former governor’s daughter told reporters.
“Seems like we’ve been here before.”
Past and current political leaders mingled in the hotel’s lobby Saturday as a jazz band played. They were there to toast Edwards’ 84th birthday, which falls Aug. 7. It was a glitzy celebration featuring the music of fiddler Doug Kershaw and the reminiscing of long-time acquaintances, such as state Sen. John Alario, R-Westwego, and Louisiana Democratic Party Chairman Buddy Leach.
Nearly 600 people paid $250 each for a gold-colored ticket to “The Roast of Governor Edwin Edwards.”
State Rep. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, said he purchased a ticket purely for the spectator value. “Anybody who has ever studied Louisiana history, Louisiana politics would want to be a part of such an occasion,” he said.
Longtime lobbyist Jo Wood, greeted political figures in the hotel’s Carousel Bar as she waited for the party to start. Wood, who lobbies for hotels across the state, said she feels guilty that Edwards went to prison.
She said Edwards wanted to put a casino in every hotel. The idea was thwarted, she said, because French Quarter hotels are too small to accommodate a gambling area. The state then proceeded with granting a limited number of licenses to riverboat casinos.
“I feel guilty he went to jail for something he never should have gone to jail for,” Wood said.
Former state Rep. William Sumlin, of Simsboro, said President Barack Obama would do well to pardon Edwards before next year’s re-election campaign. “If Obama pardoned him, Obama could take Louisiana in the presidential race,” he said.
Three of Edwards’ children - Anna, Victoria and David - welcomed their father into the news conference. Edwards strolled in with Scott, now his wife.
Dressed in a black dress and matching heels, she sat quietly in a chair, joining her husband at the podium only briefly.
Edwards praised his new wife, saying she wrote and asked to meet him in prison after reading his book. At the end of their seven-hour visit, he said, she asked to visit again.
“I’m 83 years old, in prison and broke. That’s like throwing a life raft to someone who’s drowning and saying, ￔDo you want it?’” he said.
Edwards’ take on Jindal was less flattering.
He criticized the 40-year-old Republican for using non-recurring dollars to balance the state’s budget, saying the approach is “a big no-no.”
Edwards said the well-traveled Jindal needs to spend more time in Baton Rouge and cast aside his future political ambitions to concentrate on the state’s financial problems.
“Solutions are there, but you will not find them on the way to Washington, D.C.,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he is surprised by the news coverage surrounding his post-prison life. He said he still is pursuing a reality television show and promised the content would flatter rather than embarrass Louisiana.
“Life is precious. Life is good and I’m very pleased with my life,” he said.