A wrongheaded case against John Edwards


It is a good, worthy and tardy thing that the government has done in announcing that it would not retry Edwards for — as the press release did not say — doing something regarding an election finance law that no one understands. He allegedly took some money from an heiress and a guy in Texas — virtually the same thing, if you ask me — and used it to hide the fact that he had a mistress and she had given birth to their child. What this has to do with campaign finance I have never been able to figure out. The trial jury, apparently, had the same problem.

Sometimes I would revert to news accounts of the indictment and trial. I would read the stuff and then, before I could finish my mug of coffee, the thing disintegrated in my head. Once, I read the entire indictment. That didn’t work either. I focused on the fact that Edwards’s loyal aide — always a synonym for dummy — took most of the money anyway and that the heiress paid a gift tax on the money she donated — and a gift is not a contribution.

Round and round I went, and always to no avail. I thought the judge would toss the case and when that didn’t happen, it gave me pause: maybe there’s something there. But whatever it was, kept eluding me. Deranged billionaires were showering the politically insane with oodles of money — super PACs with suspiciously patriotic names — and here was Edwards facing time in the klink for prevailing on some old lady to be charitable to his mistress and their little bundle of joy.

Now comes the time when I am supposed to denounce Edwards for what he’s done. Forget it! It’s the government I want to denounce. What a cockamamie case! I’m sure some pretty smart lawyers approved the prosecution, but it is very bad public policy to bring a case that the public does not understand. What was the crime? Who the hell can understand the law?

There is a very fine line between being indicted by the United States government and being convicted. Indictment can bankrupt the average person; it can destroy his or her reputation. It can demolish his or her business and ruin family life. This is a step that has to be taken with extreme prudence and with the clear understanding that a prosecution is in the public interest. This prosecution failed that test. The investigators need to be investigated.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.

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