Trump pardons ex-49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. over Louisiana casino case

Wednesday 19th February 2020

President Trump pardoned former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. on Tuesday for a conviction related to an attempt to win a Louisiana riverboat casino license, capping a long rise from ignominy for the championship-winning football mogul.

DeBartolo, 73, pleaded guilty in federal court in 1998 to a felony charge of failing to report that Louisiana's former governor extorted $400,000 from him to win the license. DeBartolo paid $1 million in penalties, was sentenced to two years of probation and agreed to testify against former Gov. Edwin Edwards and his son, Stephen, in connection with the case that captured national attention in the late 1990s.

The FBI said DeBartolo agreed to pay Edwards, a longtime family friend, $400,000 in crisp, new $100 bills to win a riverboat gambling license to be awarded by Louisiana's gaming commission. DeBartolo got the license but later withdrew from the project when he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the deal.

Edwin Edwards was convicted in 1999 of 17 counts of racketeering, extortion, fraud and conspiracy, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Stephen Edwards and three other people were also convicted in the scheme.

DeBartolo ran the 49ers from the mid-1970s until his conviction, lavishly rewarding his players with pay and praise, as well as hiring the legendary coach Bill Walsh. His stewardship was largely credited with creating the dynasty that won five Super Bowls, but he was forced to give up team ownership after the scandal in 2000 to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York.

Several former 49ers lobbied Trump to pardon DeBartolo, including Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice.

Speaking outside the White House after meeting Tuesday with the president, Rice said DeBartolo was "the main reason why we won so many Super Bowls. So, today is a great day for him."

Rice was joined by former 49ers players Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley, as well as fellow Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who was a running back for the Cleveland Browns.

Asked what Trump said to the group, Rice did not directly answer.

"I take my hat off to Donald Trump for what he did," Rice said.

The White House said in a statement that DeBartolo "did not allow his conviction to define his life. He remained a generous philanthropist and passionate supporter of numerous charitable causes ... and anti-gang violence initiatives. His exceptional compassion and warmth define his character to this day."

The pardon was the culmination of a long road back for DeBartolo after a deeply embarrassing saga that shook up the football world and the 49ers' power structure.

DeBartolo's downfall began in 1997, when federal investigators issued a flurry of subpoenas in the casino scandal.

The FBI had been trying to catch the cheerfully womanizing, wise-cracking Edwards - nicknamed "The Silver Zipper" - after numerous accusations of corruption throughout his four terms as Louisiana governor, and DeBartolo gave investigators the opening they sought. When he copped a plea and testified against Edwards, helping put his friend in prison, he avoided jail time - but wound up an outcast from the football world he had cultivated for decades.

Following his conviction, DeBartolo stayed mostly out of the public eye for a dozen years, but he began appearing making public appearances with the club around the time the 49ers made it back to the Super Bowl in 2013. The team lost, but prior to that game DeBartolo got to serve as an honorary co-captain of the 49ers when they beat the Atlanta Falcons to win the NFC championship.

Three years later, DeBartolo was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor. A year after that, DeBartolo and Brown were among several co-hosts for a "Pre-Inauguration Day Party" in Washington, D.C., the day before Trump was sworn into office. Those being honored at the bash included Trump's then-lawyer, the now-disgraced Michael Cohen, and former reality TV star Omarosa Manigault, who was an aide to Trump before leaving amid a falling-out with the president.

DeBartolo's comeback came as little surprise to those who watched his fall from grace and gradual return to the spotlight.

"When Eddie DeBartolo pleaded guilty in 1998, he was in disgrace and it cost him ownership of his beloved 49ers, which was possibly the worst imaginable result for him," said Tyler Bridges, whose book "Bad Bet on the Bayou: The Rise of Gambling in Louisiana and the Fall of Governor Edwin Edwards" detailed the casino caper. "But he's always been a popular guy, and very generous with his money. So, I'm ultimately not surprised that he was able to rehabilitate himself and win the pardon.

"He's a very likable owner, and his former players still love him."

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