My Personal and Legal Perspective on The Trial of John Edwards

May 25, 2012 at 10:06 am

The intersection of politics, the law and the mass media is where I have spent a good part of my professional career. John Edwards could certainly say the same thing, especially these days.

Our careers have overlapped on a couple of occasions. We served in the Senate together where there was nothing much in the way of personal interaction to speak of. He wasn’t that kind of guy. Maybe I wasn’t either. Perhaps, even more to the heart of the matter, it’s not that kind of Senate anymore.

Besides, it was also obvious that the Senate was just a political way station for the ambitious young Edwards. I always thought that these were the kind of guys who made it so difficult to accomplish anything of long-term benefit to the country. I suppose I exempt myself from this destructive obsession because I had no thought or desire to run for president in those days. That particular malady came over me later.

A few years later, each of us having tried our hand at national politics and the public  having responded, “Thanks, but no thanks,” we found ourselves both represented by the same speakers’ agency, Harry Walker in New York. The agency used to pair us together in sort of a debate format. Again, not much interaction, everything civil but no drink after the event. (At least now I know that wasn’t just me. The boy had a lot on his hands).

I Just Didn’t Know John

In retrospect, one of those nights on the road sticks out. We were to meet in Nova Scotia to speak to a group; as I arrived, the news in the U.S. was full of the National Inquirer story about Edwards and his love child. Rumors of the story had been circulating for days. I wondered if he would show up for our speaking engagement. No need to worry. He showed up with one of his kids and acted like he didn’t have a care in the world. We did our thing, and if he was worried, it surely didn’t show. The subject of the story didn’t come up, but I concluded that nobody could pull off such a performance if the story were true. Which just goes to show that I just didn’t know John.

A lot has happened since then. After a long investigation, he now sits in a federal courtroom in North Carolina, charged with federal criminal offenses that could get him up to 30 years, although a likely sentence would be much less. The crux of the charges against him is that he and his political campaign organization accepted campaign contributions totaling almost $1 million over the legal limit.

Edwards’ defense is that the money was not for the campaign, but to be used to provide assistance to his mistress and their child and as a way to keep it from Edward’s dying wife. When your defense sounds an awful lot like a prosecutor’s brief, you’re in trouble. Edwards’ does, and Edwards is.

Without dwelling upon the obvious as to Edwards’ long list of misdeeds, let’s just say that through his own actions he has turned himself into one of the most unsympathetic public figures in modern times. (Frankly, long before all of this, I always thought his demagogic “Two Americas” campaign theme was just short of a capital offense.) But, having said all of that, I’m not sure he is guilty of the offenses charged and I’m not at all convinced that he should have ever been charged.

Where Do You Draw the Line?

I think it’s fair to say that conduct like Edwards’ was far from the minds of those who drafted the campaign-finance law in question. The typical case is one where the money goes to the campaign. If it is in an amount that is over the limit, it’s a clear violation. Or the candidate takes money legally given and misappropriates it for his own personal use. In the Edwards case, however, the money never came into the campaign.

The prosecutor’s theory is that the money to take care of the mistress, spent outside the campaign, still had a campaign purpose. It would have certainly hurt the campaign if the affair had become known, but where do you draw the line? Must the subject of the activity covered up have hurt the campaign a little or a lot? What about payments by a candidate’s family friend to treat and keep from public view the candidate’s child who has a drug problem? Should the family friend have been a friend for, say, ten years in order for it to not be considered a contribution? No one knows. There is no precedent.

Law and Morality

When the legal basis for a prosecution is murky and you have a very unpopular defendant, a prosecutor must be especially careful and show restraint. He must leave the unpopularity factor out of the equation. Look at what happened in the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. The special prosecutor quickly indicted, while being showered with praise in the media. That prosecution now looks weaker with every newly discovered fact.

Of course Zimmerman was unpopular for a different reason than Edwards, but that’s not the point. One time the defendant may be an immoral jerk. The next time he may be unpopular simply because of the side of the political debate he is on. I’ve seen that happen, too. I believe that Scooter Libby would never have been indicted (in Washington, D.C.) had he not been Dick Cheney’s right-hand man. The rule of law is the bedrock of a free society. Unfortunately, it sometimes falls victim to those entrusted the most with its defense: prosecutors.

The prohibitions of the law and those of morality are not always the same. However, the law is similar to morality in that its proper application is most important when it’s most difficult. Such as when applying it to a fellow like John Edwards.

- Fred Thompson