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Does The Case Against John Edwards Go Too Far?

Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards (left) speaks to the media with attorney Abbe Lowell last October. His trial on alleged campaign finance violations is set to begin Thursday.
Chuck Burton

Prospective jurors head to court in North Carolina on Thursday to find out whether they'll be chosen to sit in judgment of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

Only four years ago, Edwards was running for the White House as a Democratic candidate. Now, he's a defendant, fighting campaign finance charges that could send him away for as long as 30 years.

Edwards rose to the top of the Democratic political elite as a blond, blue-eyed son of a mill worker made good. But that wholesome image curdled after people found out Edwards had an affair and fathered a baby with his mistress while his wife was fighting cancer; his wife later died.

"John Edwards is a despicable and loathsome human being, but that doesn't also make him a criminal," says Melanie Sloan of the nonprofit group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Sloan is no fan of Edwards, but she thinks the Justice Department's criminal case against him is wrong.

Prosecutors accuse Edwards of accepting and failing to report nearly $1 million that two old friends and campaign donors funneled through intermediaries to support a lavish lifestyle for his mistress.

The donors themselves face no criminal charges. One of them, trial lawyer Fred Baron, has died. And the other — heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who looked upon Edwards as a sort of romantic hero — is 101 years old. She's not expected to testify in the trial.

New York University law professor Richard Pildes is shaking his head at the case.

"No campaign finance lawyer can tell you they've seen any case in which the government comes anywhere close to the extremely aggressive use they're making here of the idea of a campaign contribution," Pildes says.

The money, he says, came from people who'd long supported Edwards, and it didn't cover any specific campaign expense.

Pildes says under this new Justice Department theory, almost anything could be considered a contribution under the law, greatly expanding the legitimate uses of money in politics and confusing people about where prosecutors draw the line.

No campaign finance lawyer can tell you they've seen any case in which the government comes anywhere close to the extremely aggressive use they're making here of the idea of a campaign contribution.

"We don't normally criminalize activity unless the criminal law makes it pretty clear that those actions are a crime," Pildes says.

In his own statements last June, outside a North Carolina courthouse where he pleaded not guilty, Edwards signaled that would be a core of his defense.

"There's no question that I've done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong," he said. "But I did not break the law, and I never ever thought I was breaking the law."

Justice Department prosecutors will try to poke a hole in that defense by presenting testimony from people who used to be in Edwards' inner circle.

First, there's Andrew Young, who agreed to tell people he was the baby's father, and who allegedly accepted checks from a wealthy donor hidden in boxes of chocolate. Eventually, Young renounced Edwards and wrote a tell-all book about him. Young's credibility, including his handling of a racy videotape that Edwards made with his mistress, could be a huge issue in the trial.

Then, there's Wendy Button, a former speechwriter for Edwards who wanted him to issue a public statement coming clean about the affair and the money he was getting from friends to support his mistress. The criminal charges say Edwards told the speechwriter not to mention that money for "legal and practical" reasons, which could demonstrate what the law calls guilty knowledge.

Sloan, of the nonprofit group, says the Justice Department's best chance for a conviction may be Edwards' deep unpopularity, which she says explains why prosecutors wanted a jury, not a judge, to hear the case.

"By proving to a jury that Mr. Edwards is loathsome, they are hopeful that they will in fact get a conviction," Sloan says. "And they know that in fact would have been a much riskier strategy with a judge."

The trial is expected to last about six weeks. Sources close to the case tell NPR that Edwards, who made his fortune as a lawyer by representing clients who suffered from medical malpractice and injuries, may testify in his own defense.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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