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Guilty v. Not-Guilty: Is John Edwards a Sinner or a Criminal?

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Written by: Rik Sault, Contributing Editor


I liked John Edwards when he ran for office in 2004 –  not as much as Howard Dean – but he seemed alright.  When his personal life deflated; however, I largely gave up on him.  I’m no moral cop, but cheating on your wife while she’s dying of cancer seems pretty heinous.

When a North Carolina grand jury indicted Edwards on six felony violations of federal campaign contribution laws on June 3, 2011, I would have guessed that he was guilty of at least one of them.  I don’t know much about these campaign finance laws, but even a seasoned attorney could slip-up and violate one of them.

In short, prosecutors, including some from the Justice Department, accused Edwards of seeking more than $900,000 from two wealthy supporters to conceal his pregnant mistress – former campaign worker Rielle Hunter (she has gone by many other names, including Lisa Jo Druck) – during the 2008 campaign.

When Edwards’ trial began on April 23, 2012, he faced up to 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.  But last Thursday, after nine days of deliberation, the jury found him not guilty on one count of taking illegal campaign contributions – a $200,000 check written as the Edwards campaign was collapsing, and cashed only after the campaign was over.  And the jury deadlocked on the five remaining charges, thereby resulting in a mistrial on those counts.  Justice Department sources say that a new trial is unlikely.

“The failure to get a criminal conviction on any count raises a serious question about whether it should have been brought as a criminal case,” said a former North Carolina deputy attorney general who sat through the trial. “It’s just hard to see how they could have a better opportunity for conviction than they had… it’s a huge setback for the government.”

So why was this case brought in the first place?

At first, the motivations appeared to be highly political.  The initial investigation was overseen by a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, George Holding, a Bush appointee who stayed on for an extra two years during the Obama administration to complete investigations of Edwards and another Democrat, former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley.  Just days after Edwards was indicted, Holding resigned so that he could run for Congress as a Republican.

To the bafflement of many in the Democratic Party’s legal establishment, the decision to proceed with the case was actually made by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.  Breuer, who previously worked in the White House Counsel’s Office under President Bill Clinton and represented him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said, “We will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws.”

When Edwards’ lawyers complained that the case appeared to be politically motivated, the Justice Department pointed out that career prosecutors were involved in all key decisions and the judge ultimately rejected a motion to toss the case out based on Holding’s role.

Maybe the Justice Department (or Lanny Breuer’s) decision to move forward with what now seems like a weak case was motivated by some kind of morality gut-check.  When explaining the decision, Breuer said that Edwards’ actions were an affront to “the integrity of democratic elections.”  I don’t know about the integrity of democratic elections but they were certainly an affront to the integrity of U.S. politicians across party lines.  As Politico’s Josh Gerstein put it, “There’s a kind of rough justice in putting Edwards through the emotional ordeal and financial cost of a trial, given his outrageous behavior, flagrant lies and utter lack of consideration for people ranging from his wife to campaign aides to supporters.”