Ruth Marcus
Columnist May 15, 2012

The prosecution has rested in a case that should never have been brought: the ghastly soap opera better known as the criminal trial of John Edwards. The testimony has been salacious, mesmerizing and revolting. Edwards has been proved to be what everyone already knew beyond a reasonable doubt: an egocentric cad. How big a cad? His daughter is set to testify about his love for her late mother.

But a criminal? Nothing in the evidence so far has shaken my view that this case is an unfortunate instance of prosecutorial indiscretion.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Edwards’s financial backers provided money for his mistress, Rielle Hunter; the cash served the dual role of keeping the affair hidden from his wife and of maintaining his political viability.

It is possible to shoehorn this conduct into a violation of the campaign finance laws. First, the money was not disclosed as a campaign contribution — although, Catch-22, if it had been reported as such, it would have been illegal because it was used for an improper, non-campaign purpose. Second, the amount spent on Hunter, close to $1 million, vastly exceeds the total that the individuals could legally contribute to Edwards’s presidential campaign.

Yet what is the larger goal served by prosecuting Edwards? Retribution? His career is in ruins. To keep future straying pols from misusing campaign funds? Surely that deterrent effect has been already applied — by the National Enquirer.

The irony — tragedy? — of this misapplication of government resources is heightened by an unsettling coincidence: As Edwards faces prison for taking outsize campaign contributions, such mega-donations have become the central feature of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Smart election lawyers seized on court rulings to create a dangerous creature known as a candidate-specific super PAC. This vehicle allows a politician’s most ardent, and deep-pocketed, supporters to spend unlimited amounts in supposedly independent expenditures on the candidate’s behalf.

Thus, Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, could openly spend $20 million to try to help Newt Gingrich become president. Indeed, Gingrich, in withdrawing from the race, went out of his way to thank the Adelsons.

“Of course, while they weren’t directly associated with the campaign,” Gingrich said, “it would be impossible for me to be here and thank everybody without mentioning Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who single-handedly came pretty close to matching [Mitt] Romney’s super PAC, and I am very, very grateful to them.”

You bet he is. It’s hard to imagine a more vivid illustration of the potentially corrupting influence of these mega-donors.

“We will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said when the Edwards indictment was issued last year.

Noble sentiments, but hard to square with the squalid new reality of candidate-specific super PACs, which exist for the very purpose of letting candidates “access the coffers” of political supporters “to circumvent our election laws.”

These are entities run by the candidates’ former top advisers, blessed by the candidates and — as Gingrich outlined — essential to the candidates’ political fortunes. President Obama sends his top campaign and White House officials to help his — oops, I mean, the independent — super PAC raise money for the reelection campaign. Mitt Romney does the same.

So this is what enforcement of campaign finance laws has come to in 2012: In a courtroom in North Carolina, jurors hear harrowing testimony about Elizabeth Edwards’s deathbed fears and John Edwards’s delusional bid to trade his presidential endorsement for a spot on the ticket. Meanwhile in Washington, the real threat to “the integrity of democratic elections” that Breuer cited in going after Edwards grows unchecked.

The Supreme Court, with a dewy-eyed view of independent expenditures, blind to the inevitability of wink-and-nod coordination, opened the door to this flood of campaign cash. The entities that could close it are hamstrung and unmotivated. Congress has no appetite for fixing the law, and little ability in its gridlocked state to make that happen.

The Federal Election Commission, which could step in to write tighter regulations, is paralyzed in a 3 to 3 standoff between Democrats and Republicans. The terms of five of the six commissioners have expired. The president, who once pledged to ensure “strong, impartial leadership” at the commission, hasn’t bothered to submit a candidate since the one he nominated in 2009 withdrew after 15 months of congressional inaction.

Something is very wrong with this picture.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com