Criminal violations of federal campaign financing laws require proof that the conduct was committed “knowingly and willfully.”’ In the context of a regulatory scheme such as is involved here, these words of specific criminal intent require proof that the offender was aware of what the law required, and that he or she violated that law notwithstanding that knowledge, i.e. that the offender acted in conscious disregard of a known statutory duty or prohibition.

U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses, 2007.

THE JUSTICE Department ought to take another look at its own manual. The grand jury indictment detailing six criminal counts against former presidential candidate John Edwards fails to apply that standard in a sensible way. Mr. Edwards is charged with conspiracy, false statements and accepting illegal campaign contributions. All the charges stem from payments made by two of Edwards’s friends and campaign supporters to his mistress, Rielle Hunter, during the 2008 campaign. The conspiracy, the indictment alleges, was “to protect and advance Edwards’s candidacy by secretly obtaining and using hundreds of thousands of dollars” to “conceal Edwards’ extramarital affair” with Ms. Hunter and her pregnancy with their child. As detailed in the indictment, the supporters, heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and trial lawyer Fred Baron, made efforts to conceal the payments. For example, Ms. Mellon allegedly made out the checks to her decorator and wrote misleading descriptions in the memo line to make it appear she was purchasing antiques.

Do these payments amount to contributions to the Edwards campaign? The Justice Department says they do because “public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy.” But Mr. Edwards’ campaign lawyer says that, had anyone bothered to ask her advice at the time, she would not have considered the payments to constitute campaign contributions. Scott Thomas, a former Federal Election Commission chairman retained by the Edwards legal team, said that in his view, “these payments would not be considered to be either campaign contributions or campaign expenditures within the meaning of the campaign finance laws” and that, if the matter came before the FEC, it “would conclude that these payments did not constitute a violation of the law, even as a civil matter,” no less a criminal one.

We can understand the argument about the benefit to Mr. Edwards’s campaign, and if the FEC had gone after Mr. Edwards for accepting contributions in excess of the allowable limits and failing to report them, we would not be particularly troubled by the effort to impose a fine. But a criminal case based on this novel application of the law goes too far. At least as presented in the indictment, there is scant evidence that Mr. Edwards understood the payments to be campaign contributions. In his book about Mr. Edwards, Andrew Young, the former campaign aide who at Mr. Edwards’s behest falsely claimed paternity of his child, described the payments as “gifts, entirely proper and not subject to campaign finance laws.”

Mr. Edwards is a cad, to put it mildly. His deplorable conduct would appear to have ended a once promising political career. It is troubling that the Justice Department would choose to devote its scarce resources to pursuing this questionable case