Is it “anything goes” now in America’s campaign finance system? John Edwards is acquitted of using campaign cash as hush money. There’s an explosion of high-dollar super political action committees in the presidential race. It’s all stoking criticism of revisions and regulatory loopholes in a system that was intended to keep better control of political money after Watergate. Loosening the law has made it easier for politicians to butt up against the legal line — if not cross it — and for wealthy Americans to influence who wins office, from the White House on down.
Edwards case complained that he was prosecuted under a “novel” view of campaign-finance law. Apparently, it was so new jurors couldn’t agree on what it was and whether Edwards broke it. Now the murky conclusion of the jury’s deliberations – acquittal on one count, no unanimous agreement on the remaining five – leaves it equally unclear whether the case will change how campaign contributions and expenses are defined and reported going forward. Edwards was accused of receiving excessive contributions from two benefactors to hide his mistress, and failing to report the money as campaign contributions. At least some jurors accepted his defense that the monies were gifts to help with a personal situation and were not campaign contributions. Experts in campaign-finance law are divided about whether the trial will stand as an isolated event or one that will widen the definition of a campaign contribution.
In the end, it seems, the John Edwards trial became only a circus sideshow in America’s convulsive efforts to define the limits of campaign finance. The defense rested abruptly Wednesday without Mr. Edwards taking the stand, marking the end of a courtroom drama that had plenty of drama but little of what the prosecution had promised, analysts and observers say. Before the trial began, prosecuting attorney Lanny Breuer said the federal government won’t “permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws.” … To some, the prosecution has overreached in an attempt to net a big fish. Yet the broader context of the trial has also played no small part in stripping it of deeper meaning for the political world. Indeed, given the US Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United ruling in 2010, a candidate in a similar situation today would likely be able move such money to its target in an alternate, and legal, way.
Two witnesses with a wealth of knowledge about campaign finance laws testified in the John Edwards trial Monday that the $900,000 at the heart of the case went to personal expenses for the candidate – and therefore should not be subject to public reporting or campaign finance caps. The jury heard from one of the witnesses – a former Edwards campaign treasurer. But the other, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, testified outside the presence of the jury. The judge limited what he can say if he’s called to the stand later in front of jurors. The Edwards defense team began calling witnesses Monday as the trial entered its fourth week. In comparison to the first three weeks, which featured salacious details about Edwards’ extramarital affair with former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, the first defense witnesses focused more on campaign finance and policy. On Tuesday, Cate Edwards, the 30-year-old daughter of the one-time Democratic presidential hopeful, is on the list of possible witnesses. A Harvard law school graduate who’s married now, living in Washington, D.C. and running her late mother’s foundation, Cate Edwards has been in the courtroom for most of the testimony. She occasionally leans in to discuss legal points with her father. Defense attorney Abbe Lowell said at the close of the day Monday that no decision has been made on whether Edwards will take the stand in his defense. Lowell said he will let the judge know Tuesday or Wednesday.
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.