San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. pleaded guilty Tuesday to knowing about an alleged extortion scheme involving former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.
As part of a plea agreement, DeBartolo was placed on probation and assessed a total of $1 million in penalties. He agreed to cooperate in any future trials of the former governor and his son, Stephen Edwards, stemming from an investigation of their roles in the state's riverboat casino industry.
The agreement holds no guarantees on DeBartolo's future as an owner of an NFL franchise. Prosecutors said any action taken against DeBartolo by the NFL cannot be considered a basis for him withdrawing his guilty plea.
Without the plea agreement, DeBartolo faced a maximum of three years in prison. Instead, he was placed on two years' probation. The formal charge was "misprision of a felony" -- knowing about a crime and not reporting it.
Neither of the Edwardses has been indicted but both were notified late last year that they were targets of the federal investigation that has gone on for more than two years.
The former governor and his wife were in the courtroom as DeBartolo entered his plea.
"It's all going to be all right eventually," Edwards said in the courtroom.
Later, on the courthouse steps, Edwards joked: "I hope the 49ers lose on Sunday." San Francisco plays at New Orleans on Sunday.
FBI agent Jeffrey Santini testified that DeBartolo failed to reveal a scheme to influence the awardng of the state's last available riverboat casino license.
He said DeBartolo was afraid he would lose money if he did not pay money to the Edwardses. Although the elder Edwards was out of office at the time, after four terms as governor, he still held influence with many state political figures.
"For anyone who assumed I was in a position to do damage to this man, well, that's a giant leap from logic," Edwards said Tuesday.
Santini testified that DeBartolo was warned not to have any dealing with Edwin or Stephen Edwards, but DeBartolo was worried about not getting the license.
He said the Edwardses wanted $50,000 a month in a consulting fee, which Santini called a sham payment, as well as a per-customer price on anyone entering the riverboat.
On March 5, 1997, Edwards demanded $400,000 by March 13 to head off unspecified problems with the licensing, Santini said. On March 12, they wanted $10,000 a month for Stephen, who Santini said provided little in the way of services.
Santini said that at certain times in 1996, Edwards asked a state senator for information about the state gambling board and for help in getting a key vote on the board, which would make the decision on the license.
DeBartolo, 51, was born in Youngstown, Ohio, the only son of an Italian immigrant who had made millions on shopping centers and horse racing tracks.
He rose in the ranks of the family business to become president in 1979, then in 1994, spun off most of the corporation's holdings into a $16 billion publicly traded real estate investment trust with 111 regional shopping centers and dealings in 32 states.
In 1977, he bought the 49ers for $17 million with backing from his father, becoming the youngest owner in NFL history at age 30. By 1980, he had transformed the team into one of the most respected, with 12 division titles and five Super Bowl championships. >Forbes magazine last month estimated his worth at $830 million, ranking him 236th on its list of richest Americans.
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