John Edwards case was once thought too sensitive, Justice official says.

In the wake of John Edwards’s acquittal and mistrial this week, three Justice Department officials said that, although the department initially had concerns about the investigation begun by a North Carolina prosecutor, it eventually became full partners in the case.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said that the Obama administration had inherited the investigation launched by former U.S. attorney George Holding of North Carolina’s Eastern District, who had been appointed by President George W. Bush.

One Justice official said that the case was considered politically sensitive and “it would be seen as a bad thing if we protected John Edwards and interfered in the North Carolina investigation by a Republican U.S. attorney.”

As Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s Justice Department began appointing new U.S. attorneys across the country, he was urged by both senators from North Carolina — Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr — not to replace Holding. The prosecutor was in the middle of the investigation into whether Edwards had violated campaign finance laws, as well as a second political probe.

Hagan, who had just been elected, called the White House to recommend that Justice officials leave Holding in place until the investigation was complete.

“It is of the utmost importance to me, as well as to the people of North Carolina, that we ensure this process is carried out as transparently and honestly as possible,” Hagan said in a statement at the time.

As the investigation proceeded, one Justice official said, “people were squeamish about the theory of the prosecution but were reluctant to interfere with a U.S. attorney in the field.”

But by 2011, it was clear that high-ranking Justice officials were fully on board and had approved the indictment of Edwards.

“As this indictment shows, we will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporter to circumvent our election laws,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in announcing the indictment in June 2011. A month later, Holding resigned to run for Congress.

At the time, an array of legal experts, including former prosecutors, questioned the wisdom of bringing the charges against Edwards, saying it was an aggressive interpretation of campaign finance laws.

Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor and executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, at the time called the Edwards case “remarkably weak.”

On Friday, Jack Smith, chief of Justice’s Public Integrity Section, would not discuss the case or comment on whether the department plans to retry Edwards. Generally in public corruption cases, he said, “our job is to look at the facts and then look at the law and apply the facts to the law.”

Last fall, when attorneys for Edwards accused prosecutors of political motivation in the case, Justice officials disputed that notion, saying the charges were being brought by career prosecutors, both in North Carolina and Washington.

On Friday, some jurors recounted their deliberations on NBC’s “Today” show and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” painting a picture of a deeply divided jury riven by a stubborn minority that wanted to convict Edwards of campaign finance violations and an equally headstrong majority that did not think the prosecution proved its case.

A key question was whether Edwards knew about $1 million in payments from Virginia heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Edwards’s campaign finance chairman, Fred Baron, to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter.

Juror Ladonna Foster said on the “Today” show that she thinks “Edwards had some knowledge. I think he definitely had some knowledge of the money, where the money was going, especially the money from Mrs. Mellon.” But juror Cindy Aquaro said Edwards was “just smart enough to hide it, and we could not find the evidence.”

A key flaw in the prosecution’s case was its reliance on the testimony of Andrew Young, the Edwards aide who built a luxury home with money from Baron and wrote a best-selling book about his experiences with Edwards. 

“I think the credibility of the witness was something that was of utmost importance to us,” jury foreman David Recchion told NBC.

Staff writer Julie Tate contributed to this report.

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years. Follow her @SariHorwitz.
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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