Criminal Justice

We Find the Defendant, John Edwards, Guilty of Scumbaggery

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If John Edwards were on trial for cheating on his dying wife, fathering his mistress's child, lying to everyone about the affair, and squandering other people's money in a vain attempt to keep these secrets, there would be no room for reasonable doubt. But since the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential nominee is charged with violating campaign finance regulations, federal prosecutors must do more than show what a sleazy, callous jerk he is. So far they have not done that.

The essence of the government's case is that Edwards solicited illegal campaign contributions from two wealthy donors and used the money to support a lavish life in hiding for Edwards' girlfriend, the aide who helped Edwards by falsely claiming to be the father of her baby girl, and the aide's wife. Edwards says the money—a total of $925,000—represented gifts from friends who were helping him hide the affair from his wife, not campaign contributions aimed at helping him win the Democratic presidential nomination. A former chairman of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), Scott Thomas, was prepared to testify in support of this interpretation yesterday, but U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said the jury did not need him to explain the law, since that was her job.

Eagles did, however, allow testimony from Lora Haggard, chief financial officer of Edwards' campaign, who made the same point. Haggard noted that a recently completed FEC audit of the campaign's records did not conclude that the $925,000—which the commission surely knew about, given all the attention to the criminal case against Edwards—should have been reported as campaign contributions. In other words, the FEC itself implicitly agreed with Edwards' characterization of the transfers as gifts used for personal expenses. As The New York Times notes, Haggard's testimony "presents an unusual situation," since it means "one government agency says the money was not a contribution, and another—the Department of Justice—says it was." Federal prosecutor Jeffrey Tsai claimed to be unfazed, saying, "Whatever the FEC determined is not relevant to the criminal charges."

Really? The FEC, the agency charged with regulating campaign contributions, does not think the money spent on covering up Edwards' affair fell into that category, but somehow Edwards was supposed to know that it did? It is hard to see how the government can show criminal intent in these circumstances. According to the Times, the Justice Department's evidence, which it finished presenting last week, has been heavy on the sordid details of Edwards' adultery and his absurd efforts to conceal it, neither of which was a federal crime, but "relatively light on election law," which is the crux of the case. Unless the jury decides to convict Edwards for being a scumbag, he should win an easy acquittal. 

Previous coverage of the Edwards case here.