If John Edwards goes to prison, then many other politicians should join him, according to the Department of Justice’s logic.
I have a friend, for instance, who during his first campaign unintentionally did almost exactly what Edwards did. After my friend’s first campaign event, the host pulled him aside and said, “Great job! But, can I be candid with you?”
“Sure.” Sure, he said, wondering if his rhetoric had been too strong for some in the room.
“OK. Please don’t be angry,” she said. “But people think you look like a kid, not somebody who could be in Congress. Your suit’s too big. Your shirt is threadbare, your slacks look like rags, and your shoes are scuffed. Basically, you like a boy in your dad’s hand-me-downs. Oh, and you really need a haircut. Your hair looks like a hornet’s nest. You‘ve gotta go see my girl Melissa, she can help you.”
My friend went to Melissa for the duration of the campaign, and her handiwork was by all accounts a huge improvement. Melissa refused to charge him, no matter how vehemently he tried to pay her.
A few weeks later my friend ran into his high school tennis coach, who also commented on his suit. “You can’t go around looking like that,” said the coach, and gave my friend several stylish suits and blazers that he hadn’t worn in years, with instructions on where to get them altered.
Little did my friend know that he had his own Bunny Mellon and Fred Baron, on a slightly smaller scale. And like John Edwards, he neglected to report these gifts on his FEC filings. (FEC rules state that any gift to a federal candidate that is meant to influence an election and which has not been given routinely prior to the benefactor’s candidacy must be reported.)
But if Lanny Breuer, the Assistant AG who is prosecuting John Edwards, has anything to say about it, there will be a precedent set for candidates, even those like my friend – neophytes who know precious little about the intricacies of federal campaign finance law. Any failure to report such gifts would merit a felony charge and, potentially, prison time.
Let’s lay out a few pertinent facts about the Edwards case.
A centenarian billionaire gave almost a million bucks to help him hide his pregnant mistress while he ran for president. Edwards failed to inform his campaign treasurer about these gifts.
Who was hurt here – other than Elizabeth Edwards?
We can agree that John Edwards make a mistake by succumbing to the “charms” of a bleach-blonde New Age party-girl who approached him (“You’re so hot”) at a NYC hotel bar one evening. And he compounded this initial mistake with many more along the way. By carrying on an affair as his wife’s cancer progressed, he was appallingly self-indulgent and callous. By running for president while concealing it, he became one of the highest-stakes gamblers in history, literally risking the nation’s well-being on a Houdini-like escape from this tangled web.
But that doesn’t mean the government should have spent two years and millions of dollars to prosecute him.
The crux of the case is that Edwards failed to report the “gifts” as campaign contributions. However, no Bunny-money ever touched any of John Edwards’s campaign or personal accounts. Prosecutors don’t even allege that it did. And apparently Ms. Mellon even paid gift taxes on the money. So should Edwards really be prosecuted and potentially incarcerated for misleading his campaign staff about the fact that a billionaire kept his mistress living in style?
Is there anyone in the country who doesn’t think John Edwards is a world-class heel? Probably not.
Would you like to help pay the millions of dollars for his prosecution and possible incarceration? I didn’t think so.
As regular readers know, I lied to federal agents about my knowledge of a postcard that was mailed out by an independent group during my 2004 congressional campaign. With my knowledge, one of my aides had given publicly available information about my opponent’s legislative attendance record to the independent operator, a fact that my aides and I hid from investigators. The wire worn by one of my best friends for two months in 2009 revealed my awareness of the plan to send the mailer, along with the fact that I frequently use four-letter words.
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Jeff Smith: Your Tax Dollars at Work, Prosecuting (& Potentially Incarcerating) John Edwards