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Edwards Indictment May Shape Campaign Finance Law

Edwards Indictment May Shape Campaign Finance Law

Former Democratic Senator and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards was formally indicted yesterday on charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws by “secretly obtaining and using” contributions to conceal his mistress and their baby while he was running for president in 2008. 

The grant jury has been investigating Edwards for two years now and handed down a six-count indictment.  One count was for conspiracy, four related illegal payments and one involved false statements.  If found guilty, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

The indictment alleges that Edwards and his co-conspirators solicited $725,000 from Rachel Mellon, the 100-year-old heiress to the Mellon banking fortune, and $200,000 from Fred Baron, Edwards’s campaign finance chairman.  The money was allegedly used to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter and to pay for her prenatal medical expenses, travel and accommodations.

But unlike most political scandals, the crime for Edwards was not that he covered up the affair.  Instead, the Justice Department says those contributions were campaign donations and therefore subject to federal campaign finance laws that set limits on the amount that can be donated and received and are subject to disclosure.

For the government to prove its case it will need to show the money was used for campaign purposes.  According to the Department of Justice, if the public knew he was having an affair, his campaign would have been over.  Their case will have some challenges.  Edwards campaign was over in January 2008, well before he confessed to the affair in August and after he lost multiple primaries to both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.  But, the Justice Department says, it might have imploded earlier if the affair had been exposed.

Edwards entered in a plea of “not guilty”.  Absent a settlement agreement with prosecutors, Edwards will now face a trial that will undoubtedly turn into a media frenzy as all the tacky details of his affair get aired as evidence.  Right now that trial is set to begin July 11 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, though as both sides continue to pursue settlement the start of the trial is likely to be delayed.

Edwards insists that his actions did not violate campaign finance laws.  Edwards again apologized for his actions but maintained the money was not used to hide the affair from the public but to conceal it from his wife, Elizabeth.

The Justice Department is seeking a pretty broad definition of campaign contributions here, one reason Edwards is fighting the indictment.  Another is to salvage his law license which he would lose if convicted.

But given the damage done by the Citizens United decision and an overall public distaste for anything that can be viewed as influence-peddling in Washington, the Justice Department really had no choice but to pursue these charges.  And Edwards, a skilled trial attorney with a top-notch defense team already in place will make the government press its case.  Should there be a trial any verdict will likely face appeal and could ultimately come before the Supreme Court as the government seeks to reign in campaign financing excess.

So Edwards may very well make history in the law, just not the way he imagined.

 

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photo courtesy of alexdecarvalho via Flickr

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29 comments

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5:49AM PDT on Jun 7, 2011

Okay, we know the guy's a schmuck and always has been. Maybe before his son died he was a different, better person. But maybe he has always been weak willed and more suited to his greedy private law practice than public service. Money does strange things to people and gives them delusions of grandeur, like running for public office or seeing themselves as president. But we already know all that, so why waste taxpayer money to prove Edwards is a lying, phony jerk. Just fine him, make him pay back what he misused and call it a day. Don't we have better things to do with the American citizens' hard earned money than spend it on a spectacle like this. If anyone thinks that it will lead to campaign finance reform, I have a bridge I'd like to sell you.

4:07AM PDT on Jun 6, 2011

I agree with Peter S.

7:23PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

This is why I would never give money to a candidate...they use that money to pay for lawyers when they're caught doing something illegal and now it's used for shutting up girlfriends.

4:51PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

I doubt that the action faced by Mr. Edwards will have any lasting effect upon our political system or cause more circumspect behavior on the part of his peers.

Clearly the media are having a field day with his story and righteous fingers are being pointed in judgment. He faces his consequences because he was caught--as well he should--but how many others in high office are engaged in unethical behavior even as Edwards faces censure, and continue to behave so because they have not been caught?

When our own Supreme Court allows corporations and foreign entities to contribute money to political campaigns for United States offices, it seems to me that we have more to concern ourselves with that situation than the theft of campaign money to conceal unethical behavior.

Granted, Edwards must be held accountable, but the deeper harm wrought by vast amounts of money available to candidates must be scrutinized by voters, addressed more appropriately by the Suipreme Court, and consistent regulations applied regarding the access to and use of campaign money.

3:17PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

There was a time when I would have voted for John Edwards. When he cheated on his dying wife and declared it wasn't so, Now the giving of $ supplied by his friends to hush up the truth. I am over John Edwards - what a shame he did this to his wife. I hope he comes to realize what a jewel of a wife Elizabeth Edward's was.
Shirley H.

3:10PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

A very sad situation all round.

2:47PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

@James J "Not that it matters, he's the typical liberal"

and Ensign is...?.

1:49PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

If you break the law you have to deal with the consequences. Rebub. or democrat, or no party. A citizen is a citizen, no matter what job your in.

1:42PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

if people like or not he is not the only politicol person to do wrong thins or have an affair they all do. wht is the point? they all are a liars, they all have romancess. they all are thesame. democrats or republicans. what is the big deal? why have we all have to critize his acts? who we are? he is a man as otherones. hundred of mens have affair, and we do not know. prechers mayorss, senators, governors. why conden him this way.? he will have already started to pay for his faults. nathing last forever in this eart. to one point in his life he was agreat husband, great father. i just hope that he will be ok. he istil have 3 more childrens to take care of.

1:25PM PDT on Jun 5, 2011

Hopefully something good will come out of this trail such as a campaign finance bill that would be able to overturn the SCOTUS Citizens Unitied ruling.

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