In his weekly “Stories I’d Like to See” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on Reuters.com.
1. International, Afghan and American law surrounding the accused soldier-murderer:
With the Afghan Parliament demanding yesterday that the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians there be put on trial locally rather than be tried by American military courts, I’m betting that the office of State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and others in Washington are working overtime to frame a response. How will they decide whether our army turns him over? What could their arguments be against that? What are prevailing international law and military law precedents, and how much will they matter? What are the likely ramifications for the presidential election? What position will the Republican candidates take? All parts of an important, urgent story likely to play out this week.
2. Putin’s billion-dollar palace?
Check out these two sentences embedded in a recent New York Times story about how various cronies of Russian prime minister and now president-elect Vladimir Putin have all become billionaires:
Mr. Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the enrichment of these and other acquaintances, and he has forcefully dismissed assertions made by his political opponents that he himself is a secret beneficiary of these enterprises and has amassed tens of billions of dollars in bank accounts outside Russia.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman has also denied any connection to a sprawling resort complex that some of Mr. Putin’s St. Petersburg acquaintances were said to be building for him as a “palace” on the Black Sea at a cost of as much as $1 billion.
I assume the Times is working overtime to find out more about that billion-dollar “palace” and get some good pictures of it, assuming it exists. I hope FT, Reuters, Businessweek, AP, and others, including any Russian media people brave enough to try, are on the case, too, and working all the sources they can to find out about those bank accounts. This story—if true and proved, especially with pictures and records that go viral—could set off a Russian Spring.
3. Edwards trial curtain-raiser:
Former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards is scheduled to go on trial in April for campaign finance corruption, and there’s a great story to be done about the murky legal issues—juxtaposed against the obvious personal melodrama—surrounding his case.
Edwards is about as sympathetic a figure as Charles Manson. But what he’s actually been indicted for merits a thoughtful look at whether prosecutors are trying to turn being an awful husband and overall vile human being into a crime. The charges boil down to this: When Edwards got two campaign supporters to chip in more than $925,000 to support and hide his mistress and their baby during his 2008 campaign, he had actually taken illegal campaign contributions—because the money contributed by the two supporters was over the limits governing individual donors and was never reported to the Federal Election Commission. The prosecutors’ reasoning is that because the hush money kept the Edwards scandal a secret, therefore enabling him to stay in the presidential race, it was money spent to support the campaign.
What if a candidate has a facelift, or buys a new wardrobe, or takes Spanish lessons, and someone pays for those image-enhancers? What about a kidney transplant that keeps a candidate alive, thereby keeping his candidacy alive? Or a college or law school education paid for by a parent or an uncle that dresses up the resume of someone who has vowed since he became a teenager that he was going to run for senator or president? Are these all campaign contributions that are subject to limits and to the FEC’s reporting requirements?
Conversely, if Edwards had done what the prosecution seems to be saying he should have done to stay within the law—used legally raised and reported campaign donations to pay off his mistress and support their baby—wouldn’t that have been a diversion of campaign funds for personal use, which is explicitly against FEC regulations?
The lawyer for Edwards, Gregory Craig (a star litigator who was President Obama’s first White House counsel), put it this way when Edwards was indicted: “In the history of the federal election campaign law, no one has ever been charged, either civilly or criminally, with the claims that have been brought against Senator Edwards No one would have known or should have known or could have been expected to know that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions He has broken no law.”