Defense attorney James Neal approached the witness stand in federal court here late today, turned to his client, Edwin W. Edwards, and said almost offhandedly: "Governor, we've got some gambling to talk about."
With that introduction, the racketeering trial of Louisiana's Democratic governor and master showman finally delivered on its entertainment promise.
For 30 minutes, Edwards, testifying as the final defense witness in his 12-week trial, told the jury that he once won so much money gambling in Atlantic City, N.J., that "they sent armed guards with us to the airport."
From 1980 to 1984, Edwards said, he had what he called a "revolving account" of cash -- usually totaling about $400,000 -- that he used exclusively for gambling in Nevada and New Jersey.
But the governor disputed the prosecution's claim that gambling losses could have been the motive for the profitable but allegedly illegal scheme for which he was indicted. He said that he lost a little more than he won over that period but "it never amounted to a financial problem for me or my family."
Edwards said gambling was his only hobby.
"I don't collect stamps, I don't race cars or raise horses, but I like to gamble. And when I lose, I pay. But I like to get paid when I win," he said.
His game, Edwards testified, is dice. "Almost exclusively, I play dice," he said.
"I've played it for 25 or 30 years. It's a game I understand, a disciplined game, and the odds are second only to baccarat, but that's dull and boring. I can never play that. Ninety-nine percent of my gambling time is at the craps table," he said.
"Do you consider yourself a good player?" Neal asked.
"I don't want to brag, but yes," the governor said.
Earlier in the trial, John Ashe, a branch manager for Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas testified that Edwards gave him a suitcase filled with $400,000 in cash when Ashe came to Baton Rouge in June 1984 to collect one of the governor's gambling debts.
The prosecution, led by U.S. Attorney John Volz, had also introduced evidence showing that Edwards accumulated gambling losses of $2,031,000 from December 1981 to October 1984.
But Edwards testified today that the prosecution's figures were distorted. He said that they did not show his wins or trips to smaller casinos and did not take into account that he often assumed markers, or IOU's, for other members of his gambling parties.
According to prosecution testimony, Edwards gambled under several aliases, the most common being Ed Neff and T. Wong.
"Let's talk about the aliases," Neal said. "Did you really use them?"
"I did that," the governor said.
"When did that start?" Neal asked.
"When I was a member of Congress. A group of us went out to Edwards Air Base in California for congressional purposes. We didn't advertise it, but we took an extra night and stopped in [Las] Vegas. I think it was the security person there who suggested that, because of who we were, maybe we should gamble using aliases," Edwards said.
According to Edwards, aliases he used subsequently were not attempts to hide his identity. "Everyone out there knows me," he said. "The casino managers, all of them, all of the dealers, the people in the pit, the cocktail waitresses, the maids in the rooms -- they all know who I am."
"T. Wong," Neal said. "Now how did you pick up the name T. Wong?"
"Well, a number of Chinese Americans gamble, you know, from California. San Francisco, mostly," Edwards began.
"One day, this beautiful elderly Chinese gentleman was at the table with me, and we were both winning until it was his roll of the dice. He was terrible, and we both lost. I learned his name was Mr. Wong.
"So I said, 'Look, you're responsible for me losing this money. I'm going to sign your name to the marker.' He looked at me in horror. I signed it T. Wong. He didn't realize the casinos knew me and my aliases. I didn't take the name because I looked Chinese or anything," Edwards said.
"Ed Neff," Neal said. "What about the alias Ed Neff?"
"Well," the governor said, "this one time gambling I had a real bad streak of luck. I ran out of chips. They asked me whether I wanted more chips. And I said no, I've had enough.
"When the marker came, I signed it E. Nuff, but somehow the computer made it Ed Neff. It was silly, kind of stupid, but sometimes gamblers do silly things," he said.
The prosecution charges that Edwards and seven business associates formed an enterprise to profit illegally by obtaining and selling state hospital approval certificates. The scheme allegedly developed when Edwards was out of office in 1982 and continued when he returned to the governor's mansion in March 1984.
Edwards is said to have taken several official acts benefiting the enterprise and received about $2 million as a result.
Edwards was elected governor in 1973 and served two terms. He testified that, when he left office in 1981, the state ethics board advised him he could do business with the state like any other citizen.
Volz is to cross-examine Edwards Tuesday.