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John Edwards' prosecution an uphill battle from the start

The campaign fraud case against John Edwards was almost impossible to win, experts said from the moment of indictment. A key flaw was the lack of sanctions from the FEC.

June 02, 2012|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • Some legal analysts warning against the prosecution of John Edwards said it was unprecedented and unwise to expect a jury to convict a politician for accepting money from friends to deal with an intensely personal matter.
Some legal analysts warning against the prosecution of John Edwards said… (Chuck Burton, Associated…)

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Almost from the moment John Edwards was indicted a year ago, some legal analysts warned that a criminal case was nearly unwinnable. It was unprecedented and unwise, they said, to expect a jury to convict a politician for accepting money from friends to deal with an intensely personal matter.

After a federal jury acquitted Edwards on one charge of violating election laws and deadlocked on five other charges, prompting a mistrial, the decision to prosecute a philandering politician for campaign finance fraud was still under debate Friday.

In what some experts said was a key flaw in the case, the Justice Department indicted Edwards even after the Federal Election Commission did not seek so much as civil sanctions against him. This lack of punitive action appeared to conclude that the commission believed Edwards did not violate election laws by using money from wealthy benefactors to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, during his failed run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

The government's prosecutorial arm was at odds with the very agency charged with policing campaign financing. And even after Edwards was indicted on six felony counts, trial testimony showed, the agency did not require his campaign to list the payments as campaign contributions.

Moreover, a former FEC chairman was prepared to testify on Edwards' behalf that $925,000 in payments were private gifts, not illegal campaign contributions — testimony that the judge disallowed.

"Given the absence of even civil sanctions by the FEC, in hindsight deciding to bring a criminal case against Edwards is certainly questionable," said Hampton Dellinger, a North Carolina lawyer who has taught election law at Duke University and attended the trial.

Prosecutors were hamstrung by the challenge of convincing jurors that Edwards' use of the money to cover up the affair was a violation of complex federal campaign finance laws, Dellinger said.

"It was a big stretch, and an even bigger stretch than the judge let the jury know, because she excluded evidence from the Federal Election Commission which would have showed how murky this area of the law is," Rick Hasen, a professor at the UC Irvine School of Law, said in an email.

Hasen added: "The prosecution was flawed from the start. Criminal liability for campaign finance violations should be reserved for violations of clearly established law."

The jury foreman, David Recchion, told NBC's "Today" show that the prosecution's star witness, former Edwards aide Andrew Young — who detailed the affair in salacious testimony — lacked credibility, a point "of utmost importance" to jurors.

"I think, unfortunately, that was probably the key part of the miss for the prosecution," Recchion said of Young, who had falsely claimed to have fathered Hunter's child to protect his boss.

Recchion and two other jurors also told NBC that while they believed Edwards was guilty of some campaign finance violations, prosecutors didn't produce convincing evidence to overcome their doubts about the government's case.

"He was just smart enough to hide it, and we could not find the evidence," juror Cindy Aquaro said of Edwards. "I think he was guilty, but the evidence just was not there for us to prove guilt.''

Juror Ladonna Foster said: "I think he definitely had some knowledge of the money, where the money was going."

And juror Sheila Lockwood said onABC's"Good Morning America" that Edwards "didn't get the money, so I just didn't think he was guilty."

Months before the case went to trial, Edwards' lawyers accused the Justice Department of a politically motivated and "vindictive" prosecution. In October, they sought and failed to have the charges dismissed on grounds that the Republican U.S. attorney in Raleigh at the time, George Holding, was politically biased against Edwards, a Democrat.

Holding, the millionaire scion of a North Carolina banking family and former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms, donated to Edwards' Republican opponent in a 1998U.S. Senate race. As senator, Edwards helped block Holding's nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2001.

"This case is about politics.... A Republican U.S. attorney with political ambitions of his own has used this high-profile case to his personal benefit," Edwards' lawyers wrote in the motion to dismiss.

The Obama administration, sensitive to charges of political interference, left Holding, aGeorge W. Bushappointee, in office while Holding was prosecuting North Carolina's Democratic then-governor, Mike Easley. Holding indicted Edwards in June 2011, then resigned a week later to run for Congress in the state's 13th District.

Edwards' lawyers also argued last year that the charges were unconstitutionally vague and that no such prosecution had ever been attempted.

"It could just be the facts are novel," U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles replied.

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