The criminal trial of John Edwards has accomplished what seemed impossible for a former presidential candidate who cheated on his cancer-stricken wife: elicit sympathy. Legal – not moral — reasoning has propelled the rush to his defense, and it’s been a vociferous pushback. A cadre of influential campaign finance experts has argued that federal prosecutors might be unfairly targeting Edwards over the nearly $1 million, drawn from the coffers of two wealthy donors, spent to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, during the 2008 presidential campaign. Their bottom line: The legality surrounding the payments is a gray area at best, and criminal, rather than civil, punishment could establish a dangerous precedent that risks increasing future political prosecutions. But as the trial began on Monday, a group of longtime campaign law observers suggested that dismissal of the case could have huge implications for federal regulation of how campaigns are financed. If the prosecution is unsuccessful and the Federal Election Commission takes no follow-up action, they say that the verdict could open yet another floodgate for well-heeled donors to wield influence over political candidates in a system already awash in money.
“Why wouldn’t a wealthy individual be able to pay for the tuition of a candidate’s kids going to college? Or a mortgage?” asked Jan Baran, a Republican campaign finance lawyer. “Maybe they’ll get them a second vacation home. There are some very fundamental issues at stake here.” The charges against Edwards stem from $925,000 that two of his donors, the late Fred Baron and heiress Bunny Mellon, used to hide and support Hunter during the onetime North Carolina senator’s 2008 presidential campaign. Prosecutors allege that the funds amounted to unreported campaign donations because their intent was to protect his political career.
Lawyers for Edwards, who has pleaded not guilty, have said he did not know about the payments, although no one denies they were made. Defenders of Edwards have said that the charges unfairly blur the lines between personal and political spending. But Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, says that argument obscures the larger problem with the allegations. The bottom line, she said, is that Edwards benefited from the largesse of his donors, an arrangement that many citizens see as a clear-cut bribe.