“Cad.” “Creep.” Campaign Finance Lawbreaker?

A roundup of coverage of John Edwards's indictment

On Friday, former presidential contender John Edwards was indicted on six felony charges, including the charge that he solicited and accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations, in violation of campaign finance law, to keep his mistress and their baby hidden from the public while he pursued the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. (Cue The Daily Show: “John Edwards spent an awful lot of money hiding a baby. Hasn’t he ever heard of a duffle bag?”)

Edwards pleaded not guilty, and to reporters outside the Winston-Salem courthouse on Friday he said, lawyer-like: “I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I’ve caused to others. But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.” (The Justice Department must prove that Edwards knowingly and willfully violated campaign finance law.)

On the off chance that your time quota this week for Consumption of News About Contemptible Men in Politics has been exhausted elsewhere, I offer this roundup of recent Edwards news.

“Cad,” concluded both Reuters and the Washington Post’s editorial board (the latter while arguing that the government’s was a “questionable legal case”). “Creep,” said a Star-Ledger editorial headlined, in print, “A Lout Driven by Lust” (the online headline was, “It could’ve been worse: Edwards could’ve been elected”). “Lout” it was, too, for Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson. “John Edwards continues to embarrass state,” proclaimed the Winston-Salem (NC) Journal in an editorial lamenting that “now, unfortunately, [Edwards] and his carefully coiffed hair will be in our faces for years to come.”

For an in-a-nutshell lede, there’s this from Reason’s hit & run blog:

It is not a crime to have an affair while your wife is dying of cancer, father a child with your mistress, and persistently deny both the affair and the child until forced to come clean when the guy who pretended to be the father finally admits the ruse. It is not even a crime to have such an affair while you are running for president. What is a crime, say federal prosecutors, is using your rich friends’ money to conceal the affair by paying for your mistress’s medical treatment, travel, and housing.

But, is it? A crime? Can the Justice Department prove that Edwards knowingly and willfully violated our “murky” (this word and its variants come up often in the coverage) campaign finance law?

ProPublica walks readers through the murk with a handy “John Edwards Cheat Sheet,” exploring “What Are the Facts and Do They Make Him a Criminal?” Over at Slate, election law expert Richard L. Hasen has an informative column discussing “why the case against John Edwards may be hard to prove.” Writes Hasen:

Let’s begin with an unassailable fact: John Edwards behaved very badly…What’s less clear, however, is whether Edwards should go to jail for his behavior. Specifically, does it amount to a violation of federal campaign-finance laws?

Politico reports that the prosecution has been looking around for former FEC commissioners to testify about how to interpret the campaign-finance law, and at least one of these commissioners has turned the government down, viewing the case as too murky.

If the law is so murky that the government needs an expert to testify as to what it actually means, there’s a decent argument that it would be unconstitutional to use that law as the basis for a criminal prosecution. It is just too vague…

The court of public opinion has long since issued its verdict on Edwards. In the court of law, however, it could be hard to prove the case against him.

“Complex Case Ahead for Prosecutors,” reported the New York Times. “John Edwards case may be tough to prove,” Politico wrote. “Pitfalls abound for prosecutors in Edwards case,” noted the Associated Press. (See a pattern?) Roll Call, too, reported that “legal experts say securing a conviction could be a bumpy road,” as

There are significant roadblocks prosecutors must overcome to make the case that the former Senator knowingly and willfully violated campaign finance law — the standard of proof required in a criminal case — given that the Federal Election Commission has issued conflicting opinions about in which situations money given to candidates is a personal gift or a campaign contribution, legal experts said last week.

The New York Times’s Matt Bai, who followed Edwards along more than one campaign trail, mused on “What Would Justice for John Edwards Mean?” Wrote Bai:

In general, we in political journalism too readily seek to define “character” by how people behave in their personal lives. History doesn’t lack for examples of great public servants who did things we might find morally reprehensible in their private lives, and plenty of upright people make for miserable stewards of public policy. This is why I pretty much try to never write about personal transgressions, especially after they recede into the past.

(Does this mean no Bai-on-Weiner Times mag cover story? Or, an immediate Bai-on-Weiner cover story?) Back to Bai:

And yet the Edwards scandal — involving not just a mistress but an elaborate ruse to establish false paternity — seemed damning on a political level, too.
What was never pointed out, perhaps because most reporters had never really taken the antipoverty platform very seriously, is that Mr. Edwards had been running around the country proposing to get tough on poor fathers who didn’t take fatherhood seriously. (Indeed, this proposal stood out because it was virtually the only one of Mr. Edwards’s ideas to acknowledge that poverty wasn’t entirely a function of insufficient social spending.) That Mr. Edwards was at this very same time pressuring someone else to take responsibility for his own child is, even now, hard to fathom. The scandal cost Mr. Edwards his credibility, at least for the moment, and it should have.
Should it also cost him what’s left of his legal career, and should it cost the taxpayers however much this case has sucked away from other priorities? Should we just fine the man some of his millions and let it go? I could spin the answers here either way.

(More insight, this last sentence, into “we in political journalism?”)

The Times also had a fascinating profile of Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the 100-year-old Listerine heiress who gave to Edwards some of the money over which he was indicted and who may be asked to testify. The Times informs readers that, while “older people are often not perceived as reliable witnesses,” Mrs. Mellon is, according to a friend, “in fine fettle for someone who is 100,” being a Pilates enthusiast trained by “the master himself, Joseph Pilates, more than 50 years ago.”

The profile ends as follows:

Even if Mrs. Mellon is not called to testify or indicted, the episode may leave her as collateral damage. “For her now to be on the radar for something in the unseemly category is unfortunate,” [a friend] said. This is especially so for a woman who has insulated herself from the media glare for nearly a century.

“Nothing should be noticed,” she told The New York Times in 1969 in a rare interview at her home in Virginia. She underscored her point by repeating it as she stood outside her stone house, which was void of color. “Nothing should be noticed.”

An apt motto indeed for a big-ticket John Edwards benefactor.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.