There’s an old adage that says if you shoot at the king you’d better be sure to kill him. Perhaps the corollary is that if you shoot at a person who’s fallen from power your aim doesn’t have to be quite as precise. That, at least, is my takeaway from the indictment of former senator, former Democratic presidential candidate, former vice presidential nominee and — as I said the other day — former and current pond scum, John Edwards. The Edwards indictment does not change my assessment: either of Edward’s fundamentally low character or of the folly of making a criminal case out of it.
Edwards had an extramarital affair and a child as a result of the affair, all while he was running for president. Like many people who cheat on their spouses, he tried to cover it up and lied about it, repeatedly. Affairs and deception tend to go together. Unlike many people who cheat on their spouses, Edwards had wealthy friends who helped him — to the tune of more than $900,000 — keep the other woman quiet. In the view of the Justice Department, this amounts to a criminal conspiracy “to protect and advance” Edwards’s presidential candidacy.
As the indictment phrases it, “Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards’ presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy.” The underlying crime, in the Justice Department’s view, is that the payments for Edwards’s mistress, Rielle Hunter, constituted illegal campaign contributions because they were in excess of the allowable limits and were not reported to the Federal Election Commission.
Was all this subterfuge for the purpose of evading campaign finance laws — because the parties knew the contributions were illegal — or to keep the underlying scandal quiet? As I said, affairs and deception tend to go together.
She’s not exactly a disinterested party, but it is still worth noting that Edwards’s campaign finance lawyer at the time of the campaign, Pat Fiori, said that had she been asked about the payments at the time, she would not have deemed them to be campaign contributions that required reporting. “Had I been asked for my legal opinion at the time the payments were made, I would have advised that based upon all of the FEC interpretations. . .the payments for Ms. Hunter's expenses were not campaign contributions,” Fiori said in a statement.
Scott Thomas, a Republican former chairman of the Federal Election Commission retained by the Edwards team, said in a statement that “these payments would not be considered to be either campaign contributions or campaign expenditures within the meaning of the campaign finance laws; that the Federal Election Commission, if asked, would conclude that these payments did not constitute a violation of the law, even as a civil matter; and that the facts do not make out a knowing and willful violation of the campaign finance laws warranting criminal prosecution.” Maybe Edwards’ conduct is so loathsome that a jury will end up convicting him on these facts. Or maybe the Justice Department, as Fiori and Thomas suggest, and as I continue to believe, has badly overreached.