Scandal is the only sure bet in state’s adoption of gambling.
Book review by Jason Berry
Legalized gambling was a big media story of the 1990s. As state and local governments turned to lotteries for a revenue stream, the casino capital of Las Vegas supplanted its tawdry image of mobsters, high rollers, and sex on the hoof with that of a gigantic theme park. Billion-dollar hotels created wondrous environments influenced by Disneyland. A place for kids to frolic while the adults played blackjack. Family values!
The spread of grandiose casinos, like Donald Trump’s in Atlantic City, was part of the glitz of the go-go ’90s. Down South, along the sandy shores of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, a vast complex of luxury hotels and casinos went up with Wall Street support, pumping millions into coffers of the nation’s poorest state.
Across the border in Louisiana, the arrival of legalized gambling was a spectacular disaster. This near-operatic saga had quite a cast, including Governor Edwin Edwards, whose greed outpaced his legendary libido; a line of sleazy politicians who seem to have stepped out of a Bmovie set of the 1950s South; a real estate developer named Christopher Hemmeter who smiled like a prince, promised the moon and sank into bankruptcy; bumbling mobsters; FBI agents with pulses quickening to the thrill of the hunt; state police officials bewildered by the task imposed upon them to do background checks and award casino permits; and a plucky accountant for the state revenue department, name of Roland Jones, who concluded that Chris Hemmeter’s financial statement was too debt-freighted to finance a riverboat casino, one of 15 such licenses the state police would award.
There are no heroes in Tyler Bridges’ absorbing report on the Louisiana gambling scandals, Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), and that just may be its virtue. His account of avarice and ignorance dancing cheek-to-jowl moves with understated tones through events that would provoke street riots in Vermont, and possibly even Chicago. The corruption in Bridges’ chronicle floats along like oil on water, following the bayou unto eternity.
There is at least a prophet in Roland Jones, a black orphan who worked his way through high school and college. When state police regulators met to decide on a permit for Hemmeter’s company, Jones gave his unfavorable financial report.
Minutes later Governor Edwards called a state police official, endorsing Hemmeter. Hemmeter got his permit. He soon went belly up.
Bridges is an investigative reporter with the Miami Herald who previously worked at the Times-Picayune. In 1991 he covered the gubernatorial election that pitted the white supremacist David Duke against Edwards, and later published The Rise of David Duke.
From the moment Edwards moved back into the Governor’s Mansion in 1992 with a girlfriend named Candy Picou, young enough to be his daughter, he began hosting high-stakes poker games, and in working hours orchestrated legislative passage of a gambling plan that he soon manipulated to assure that his cronies and children found seats on the gravy train.
Edwards left office voluntarily after his term ended. Shortly thereafter, federal agents put wiretaps on his home and office and began a massive investigation. Last year, the former governor, his son, and three aides were tried and convicted on multiple counts of extortion in the doling out of casino licenses. They are currently free on bond pending an appellate court decision.
Bad Bet on the Bayou is very much a reporter’s book, a straight-forward account of the money-making, politics, and corruption with gambling as a leitmotif. The narrative has all the flaws of newspaper prose (“rising oil prices had produced a slew of skyscrapers and good-paying jobs”). The labyrinth of names in the myriad deals involving riverboat casinos, video poker, and the huge Harrah’s casino in downtown New Orleans may bog readers down and cause to them leaf back a few pages to keep the details straight. But these are small drawbacks to a saga with lots of juice.
Here, for example, is the author’s reflection on the young companion Edwards eventually married:
“Anyone who met Candy invariably came away describing her as sweet and friendly. ‘She doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body: marveled Victoria Edwards, one of the governor’s two daughters. ‘What she’s doing in a family full of barracudas is beyond me:”
In another passage, after Edwards announces he won’t run again, Bridges gives us a terse example of the pot calling the kettle black: “He was devoid of principle,” said David Duke, “but at least he was honest about it.”
The Times-Picayune devoted great space and investigative reporting to the gambling story for several years. At one point, James Gill, a columnist for the paper, wrote: “Last week in this column, members of the state casino board were described as boot-licking curs, and naturally, a few people have demanded an apology. They are right. This column therefore begs forgiveness of all dog-lovers.”
Bridges treats the Edwards trial as the culmination of the political drama. At some point in the near future, the 5th u.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will rule on technicalities raised by Edwards’ lawyers and decide whether the former governor will start serving his 10-year prison term, or be retried.
The “world’s largest casino” that developer Chris Hemmeter envisioned was to have been a classy Grand Palais to rival the one of Monte Carlo. After a blizzard of political machinations, Hemmeter ended up with the lease to a prime piece of downtown real estate, a plum dispensed by then-Mayor Sidney Barthelemy; however, the permit for the casino itself went to two personal injury lawyers and their friends, in partnership with Harrah’s.
This shotgun marriage produced its own cul-de-sac of trench warfare that the author dutifully recounts. At one point Harrah’s New Orleans went bankrupt, and for nearly a year, as corporate officials wrestled with state politicians on financial terms that would give the casino a better profit margin, wild cats roamed the basement of the unfinished temple of chance -what a metaphor for this outback of democracy!
Today, with the slot machines humming, downtown New Orleans is booming with hotel construction and Harrah’s is rolling along.
There is no irony in this finale. For as Bridges writes in a well-researched first chapter, the history of gambling in Louisiana began far back in the colonial era and never really stopped. In 1952, the sheriff of st. Bernard Parish telephoned the superintendent of state police, Francis Grevemberg, a sledgehammer reformer who was literally breaking down doors of back room gambling dens to eradicate the black market. Said the sheriff: “If you don’t stop the raids in New Orleans, St. Bernard and jefferson, I hate to tell you what’s going to happen to you. The guys you’re playing with are playing for all the marbles. You’re going to end up a dead woodpecker.”
Grevemberg, now in his 80s, bowed to political pressure and lived to see gambling reincarnated as a cash cow for state government.
Jason Berry‘s books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Up From the Cradle of Jazz, and Louisiana Faces: Images from a Renaissance, with photographs by Philip Gould. Visit Berry’s website for more information.