Edwards' Federal Campaign Witch Trial
May 18, 2012
Hitting below the belt, government prosecutors used former U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ own words to impugn his character and impeach his defense in his Greensboro, N.C. federal trial for campaign finance violations. Government prosecutors claim Edwards, 58, violated federal campaign laws using funds to cover-up an affair and pregnancy with his mistress Rielle Hunter while he ran for president in 2008. “Campaign finance laws are designed to bring the two Americas together at election time,” said U.S. prosecutor Bobby Higdon, paraphrasing Edwards’ campaign rhetoric spelling out his rich-and-poor metaphor for two Americas. “John Edwards forgot his own rhetoric,” said Higdon, inflaming jurors to see Edwards as just another lying, arrogant politician who got caught red handed in the cookie jar. Despite defense objections, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles permitted incendiary rhetoric.
Government prosecutors focused heavily on Edwards’ character, not material facts of whether or not the former senator, vice presidential and presidential candidate violated campaign laws. “He wanted to be our leader. He asked for our vote. He had a popular wife and beautiful family, and on that day, the seeds of his destruction were sown,” said Hidgon, referring to his Dec. 30, 2006 decision to run for president. Higdon’s focus on inflammatory facts unrelated to the central question jurors must answer indicate the flimsiness of the government’s case. Prosecutors claim that Edwards’ knew that if his affair became public it would destroy his presidential campaign. Whether that’s true or not, it has nothing to do with any violations of campaign finance laws. Trying Edwards as a scoundrel doesn’t translate into campaign finance violations.
Prosecutors contend that Edwards engaged in a yearlong cover-up with the help of campaign aid Andrew Young and Texas-lawyer-financier Fred Baron. “It is a simple rule and applies to every candidate and every donor,” said Higdon, insisting Edwards’ knew the cash donations from Baron and now deceased heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon exceeded amounts allowable under campaign finance laws. Edwards, a multimillionaire from his days as a products liability litigator, didn’t need to pay for his mistress through campaign finance funds. If Baron or “Bunny” gave Edwards cash, it wasn’t necessarily earmarked for the campaign, a could have been to help a dear friend out of a pickle. Presenting Edwards as a lying, cheating politician inflames jurors but doesn’t deal with the substantive legal argument of whether the former senator deliberately violated McCain-Feingold or any other campaign laws.
Even his former aide, Andrew Young, contended that Edwards wanted him to claim paternity for Hunter’s baby doesn’t lend any material facts to the government’s case. Saying Edwards would “deny, deceive and manipulate” to cover-up his affair to protect his presidential hopes alive, Higdon, again, impeaches Edwards’ character but doesn’t support his case that he violated federal campaign laws. If Edwards personal friends wished to donate to Edward’s cause of covering up his affair with Hunter, that doesn’t violate federal campaign laws. Dragging Edwards into federal court, the government has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars. Federal prosecutors should not be driven by personal animus or moral outrage, no matter how egregious or reprehensible. All can agree that Edwards looked out selfishly for his own needs during his wife’s breast cancer illness.
Prosecutors indict their own case claiming that Edwards received generous support from Baron and Bunny. “This wasn’t a guy quietly helping a friend. It was a full rescue operation . . .for a teetering campaign,” Higdon told the 12-member jury. Higdon didn’t bother to explain the most obvious alternative explanation that Edwards didn’t want his wife Elizabeth and family to know about his affair with Hunter. Despite receiving more that $400,000 for Baron and $725,000 from Bunny, prosecutors haven’t shown that Edwards used cash from his campaign war chest to cover-up his affair with Hunter. It’s pure speculation that Higdon insists cash donated by Baron and Bunny was specially intended for campaign use. Higdon makes his own argument that Edwards knew there were $2,300 limits to campaign contributions. Anything more would be for Edwards’ personal use.
Government prosecutors proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Edwards used personal cash gifts to cover-up an affair and pregnancy with his 48-year-old mistress, Rielle Hunter. There’s nothing illegal about taking money from friends to help cover-up a sexual affair. “The whole scheme was cooked up to support John Edwards’ political ambitions,” Higdon told the jury. Higdon can’t say with any certainty that Edwards didn’t pony up to keep his affair from his wife and family. Higdon must prove that Edwards knew he intended to violate campaign finance laws. “There was no direct evidence that John Edwards knew he was violating campaign contribution laws,” said former U.S. prosecutor Steve Friedland. “Juries like smoking guns. There were no smoking guns here,” attesting to government’s tenuous case. Proving that Edwards paid to cover-up an affair doesn’t violate federal campaign laws.
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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