THE ACQUITTAL Thursday of former North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions, and the jurors’ inability to reach a unanimous verdict on five other counts, reinforce our conclusion that the government erred in deciding to pursue criminal charges against Mr. Edwards in the first place.
We remain troubled by the effort to turn Mr. Edwards’s undeniably reprehensible conduct into a criminal offense and would urge the government not to seek retrial on the remaining counts.
Federal election law defines a contribution as “any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office.” The flurry of checks and cash to support — and presumably keep quiet — Mr. Edwards’s mistress arguably constituted illegal contributions to the Edwards campaign that violated the law because they exceeded the permissible limit for giving.
“In a democracy, it matters what we know about our candidates. We need to know who is influencing them, we need to know where they get their money from, and we need to know how they choose to spend that money,” prosecutor Robert Higdon told jurors in his closing argument.
That is true, yet the sordid Edwards episode was never a good case with which to make this point. In order to find him guilty, the jury would have had to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Edwards acted knowingly and willfully to violate the campaign finance laws. That was always a stretch. The Federal Election Commission (FEC), auditing the Edwards campaign after the revelation of nearly $1 million in payments from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and the late trial lawyer Fred Baron, did not determine that the payments should have been reported on Mr. Edwards’s campaign filings.
Although U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles did not allow it into evidence, Mr. Edwards’s defense lawyer, Abbe Lowell, highlighted a 2009 Justice Department letter stating that, in order for the U.S. government to bring criminal charges, “The application of the law to the facts of a matter must at the very least be clear, and there must be no doubt that the [FEC] considers that the underlying conduct presents [an election law] offense.”
That is a sensible standard. Vigorous enforcement of the campaign finance laws, both civil and criminal, is an essential element of a functioning democracy. But in this case the government should have heeded its own advice.