Edward DeBartolo Jr., credited with assembling and overseeing one of the most highly regarded franchises in the NFL, resigned as chairman and chief executive officer of the San Francisco 49ers on Tuesday in anticipation of being indicted by a federal grand jury in Baton Rouge, La., on charges of gambling fraud.
DeBartolo’s sister, Denise DeBartolo York, will assume control of the Edward DeBartolo Corp., which owns about 85% of the 49ers, and team President Carmen Policy is expected to receive an estimated 5% ownership interest for continued running of the team’s day-to-day activities.
“This won’t affect the team’s on-field performance at all,” former 49er coach Bill Walsh told the San Jose Mercury News. “There’s no connection there. There might have been the problem of a distraction 10 years ago, when Eddie was closer [to the players], but he’s not nearly as involved as in the past.”
DeBartolo’s role in recent years with the 49ers has been confined to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy over his head after Super Bowl victories. Policy has represented DeBartolo at the NFL’s annual meetings, and Policy’s influence in the league has surpassed that of most owners. The announced shift in power Tuesday appears to be only a technicality for the benefit of NFL officials concerned about appearances.
“I’ve basically been running the team since Bill Walsh left, and now by virtue of minority ownership and by virtue of a new contract, I continue running the team,” Policy said in a local radio interview. “Nothing’s going to change. The method of operation, the style of operation, even the faces they are used to seeing each and every day will be exactly the same.”
DeBartolo’s impact on the 49ers has sprung from his willingness to spend the money to acquire and keep some of the game’s top performers. The team has won five Super Bowls, posted winning records for 15 straight seasons and has claimed 13 NFC West Division titles, including this year’s.
“I look forward to the time when I can address these issues and tell my side of the story,” DeBartolo said in a statement.
DeBartolo was called before a Louisiana grand jury last summer, but in the last few days prosecutors reportedly sent letters to him, former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards and four others, notifying them that they will be soon indicted, although there was no specification of charges.
The letters also invited each to testify this week before the grand jury, should there be evidence that could absolve them.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser of New Orleans, who wrote the letters, declined to comment. Edwards also was silent about the letter but said he expected to be indicted soon, adding, “I still don’t know what for.”
DeBartolo, whose corporation has ownership interests in three thoroughbred race tracks, had sought a Louisiana gaming license for a $194-million riverboat casino in Bossier City, La., along with the Dallas-based Hollywood Casino Corp.
He pulled out in June, citing NFL concerns about gambling.
There are suggestions now, however, that he withdrew after being asked by a Baton Rouge grand jury to turn over documents linking him to Stephen Edwards, son of the former governor, who reportedly might be indicted on possible charges of mail and wire fraud, money laundering and extortion.
DeBartolo Entertainment and DeBartolo’s attorney did not return telephone calls to The Times.
“It’s been a bad week for the 49ers,” said political consultant Jim Ross, noting that the team suffered its worst defeat since 1980 against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
Ross managed the campaign against the 49ers’ planned new stadium-mall complex last spring, and unsuccessfully tried to make DeBartolo’s troubles in Louisiana an issue. In June, voters approved a $100-million bond issue by less than 1%, which will help cover the costs of building a $525-million complex in the city’s economically depressed Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood.
“I wish this news had broken six months ago,” Ross said.
San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who worked with DeBartolo to get approval for the new stadium-mall, said, “I’m very sorry for Eddie DeBartolo. It’s a difficult thing to go through and a difficult decision to make [to step down.]”
DeBartolo bought the 49ers for $17 million in 1977, becoming the youngest NFL owner at 30. Following in his father’s footsteps as a Youngstown (Ohio)-based builder of regional shopping malls, DeBartolo became a fixture at 49er games and recently moved his home here.
“It feels almost like the end of an era,” said Bruce Jenkins, sports columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. “It is a black day for the city.”
The DeBartolo brother-sister tandem has had equal ownership in the 49ers, but Denise DeBartolo York’s position has been a silent one. Now, she says, she will be in charge, although skeptics might wonder if anything has changed.
“Hey, it’s still in the family,” said Paul Fuller, owner of Pat O’Shea’s Mad Hatter, a sports bar. “I don’t think it’s going to have any effect on the team whatsoever. I think Eddie’s got his people in place. The house is in order whether he’s there or not.”
DeBartolo, while popular for providing a winning team, also has irritated the faithful. He threatened to move the team if San Francisco voters did not approve the bond issue for a new stadium, and allowed quarterback-icon Joe Montana to finish his career in Kansas City.
Montana has kept his distance from the 49ers ever since, but recently agreed to be honored at San Francisco’s game with Denver on Dec. 15.
DeBartolo, however, figures to be a no-show.
Times staff writers Mary Curtius and Maria L. LaGanga contributed to this story.