April 12, 2012

Misplaced Priorities at the Department of Justice

By CREW Staff

John EdwardsAs we all know, even as he was running for president, John Edwards carried on an affair behind the back of his cancer-stricken wife.

As the lawyers might say, there are some things about this behavior that we will stipulate:

  • It was loathsome. 
  • It was despicable. 
  • It was reprehensible. 
  • It was any similar adjective you can think of.

But the idea that payments made by two longtime friends of Mr. Edwards to his mistress are "campaign contributions" deserves a few adjectives of its own: Ludicrous, absurd and stupid come immediately to mind. Also dangerous.

Read: CREW criticizes Justice Department indictment of John Edwards

Jury selection for Mr. Edwards' trial is scheduled to start today. If he is convicted, it will open the way for spurious prosecutions of people with far better moral character. At the same time, it could open the floodgates for politicians to charge personal expenses to their campaigns. That is, in fact, illegal under current law (though, as we document in our Family Affair report, some politicians find creative ways to get around this prohibition). So Mr. Edwards had every reason to believe that had he, in fact, used campaign funds to pay Rielle Hunter’s expenses, that would have been illegal.

The case brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ) boils down to this: John Edwards campaigned as a "family man." Disclosure of the affair would have tarnished that image. Therefore, the DOJ says, any money spent to cover up the affair was a campaign contribution, and everyone involved knew it.

As we explain in the brief we filed calling for the case to be dismissed, there are several problems with this, but two stand out:

  • The people who gave the money were close personal friends of John Edwards before he ever ran for president.  
  • The payments continued after Mr. Edwards dropped out of the presidential campaign.

In journalism, it's often said that "when there is a simple explanation and a complicated explanation, the simple explanation usually is correct." Here's the simple explanation in the Edwards case: John Edwards and his friends wanted to hide the affair from Mr. Edwards' wife and children. His conduct was deplorable – but not illegal.

Mr. Edwards also is an odd target in light of some cases on which the Justice Department has taken a pass:

  • DOJ did not prosecute disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) or former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) for selling their influence to notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff.  
  • DOJ declined to prosecute former Sen. John Ensign (R-NV), for conspiring with his former aide to violate post-employment lobbying restrictions, or for failing to report to the Federal Election Commission a $96,000 severance payment made to his mistress after he fired her from her position on his campaign committee.

In the U.S. criminal prosecutions are based on bad conduct, not bad character. Sadly, this is a lesson the Department of Justice seems to have forgotten.

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