John Edwards Slush Fund Show Trial
April 23, 2012
Facing trial in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem, N.C., former U.S. Senator and 2004 Democratic Vice Presidential running mate with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), John Edwards (D-N.C.) could spend years in prison for violating federal campaign laws. Edwards has been accused by the government of using campaign contributions to finance a cover-up and expenses for his former videographer mistress Rielle Hunter. Hunter became pregnant in 2008 while Edward battled for the Democratic presidential nomination. Public exposure to his sordid lifestyle could have certainly wrecked his political career. Federal officials contend that Edwards, now 58, improperly used campaign donations to pay hush money to his mistress while his presidential campaign held by a thread. Government prosecutors contend Edwards knew his affair with Hunter would have wrecked his campaign.
When the jury hears the case, they’ll have to decide whether or not Edwards violated campaign finance laws, using his war-chest to pay for his mistress’s rent and pregnancy costs. “This is expanding the scope of the definition of campaign contribution” said Ron Wright, a Wake Forest University law professor, skeptical of the government’s case. “It is an unprecedented definition [of campaign finance violations], hinting that the government overreached prosecuting Edwards. Edwards, who lost his wife to breast cancer Dec. 10, 2010, is worth umpteen millions from his days as a Raleigh-Durham trial lawyer. Government officials claim Edwards knowingly used campaign funds to subsidize medical and living expenses for his pregnant mistress. Defense experts expect to call to the witness stand former Federal Election Commission members to bolster Edwards’ case.
Some believe that prosecuting Edwards during an election year could give President Barack Obama a black eye, exposing corruption with high-profile Democratic politicians. Others believe the line has to be drawn with politicians abusing their privilege under U.S. campaign laws. Edwards’ former 2008 campaign chairman Fred Baron and one of his key donors Rachel “Bunny” Mellon are both dead, preventing prosecutors from incriminating cross examination. Government prosecutors granted immunity to Edwards’ campaign aid Andrew Young, who wrote a book about Edwards’ affair and attempts to cover it up. No one really knows Young’s motives in exposing Edwards’ affair and payments to Rielle Hunter. Young’s testimony hopes to establish Edwards as a selfish politician, obsessed with covering up a career-ending extramarital affair.
Jurors could be treated to Edwards’ repeated denials about his affair and baby with Hunter. Forced to weigh Edwards’ credibility against government prosecutors and key witnesses, jurors will have to make an astute judgment about the probity of Edwards’ conduct. If the testimony gets bogged down in legal definitions of campaign contributions and rules about spending, jurors might give Edwards a free pass because it’s unclear what really happened. Despite the government contending that Edwards spent campaign cash on Hunter, Edwards could make the case that the cash was not earmarked specifically for campaign spending. Jurors then have to figure out what represents a campaign expense vs. other expenses in which candidates have more latitude about spending cash. Given the looseness of such definitions and vagueness in spending rules, the government’s got a tough sell.
Edwards’ attorneys will no doubt go after Andrew Young’s credibility. He was paid handsomely for his tell-all, tabloid book, giving all the dirt of Edwards and his nefarious affair with Hunter. Much of the disdain about Edwards stems from his wife’s breast cancer. Had Elizabeth not died of breast cancer, it’s questionable whether or not the highly publicized affair would have hit the headlines. Edwards’ affair while his wife received last-ditch chemotherapy makes Edwards look all the more despicable. Even televangelist Pat Robertson acknowledged Sept. 13, 2011 on his “700 Club” show its OK for Christians to seek extramarital relationships when their spouses are disabled with Alzheimer’s disease or other terminal illnesses. Edwards’ affair drew heated scorn because of Elizabeth’s breast cancer.
When you really look at the government’s case against Edwards it boils down to too much hearsay and moralizing. While few can give Edwards high marks for his affair and cover-up, prosecuting the former senator seems like overkill. Splitting hairs over whether campaign contributions were earmarked for other types of spending raise serious doubt about the government’s case. After losing his wife and already banned from politics, Edwards has paid a draconic prices for his indiscretion. Like Tiger Woods, he was guilty of bad judgment and moral infractions, not federal crimes. Making a federal case out of Edwards spending on Hunter fails to see the latitude politicians have in using campaign contributions. Whether or not Edwards’ account was designated for campaign spending, it’s going to be a tough sell to jurors. Honest mistakes do happen without making it a federal case.
About the AuthorJohn M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma
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