While the criminal case against former US Senator John Edwards failed miserably, the message prosecutors sought to send was a worthy one: Federal candidates can’t be allowed to exploit access to wealthy donors in order to flout campaign laws. This message is especially timely given the flood of money flowing into campaigns this year from undisclosed sources via political action committees.
But the actual case against the North Carolina Democrat was far from solid, as the trial’s result showed. Federal prosecutors argued that Edwards, during his 2008 presidential bid, broke the law by setting up a scheme to win campaign contributions totaling $900,000 from two wealthy donors that violated donation limits and disclosure rules. A jury acquitted him Thursday on a charge that he broke the law by obtaining $200,000 for his mistress from one donor; prosecutors didn’t prove the donations were campaign contributions, jurors said. They deadlocked on five other charges.
Their decision isn’t all that surprising given the shaky evidence, which, if anything, suggests that the donors didn’t mind if the money went not to Edwards’ campaign but to address his sordid personal problems.
It’s not worth trying this case again. The likelihood of another 12 jurors returning a guilty verdict isn’t high, and the Justice Department’s resources can be put to better use on other cases. Yet the interactions between political candidates and wealthy donors deserve closer scrutiny than ever from prosecutors, and also from federal regulators. The US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and subsequent cases have made it easier for donors to exert influence in subtle ways — and for candidates to burnish their images using money donated outside the traditional campaign-contribution system.
The case brought against Edwards wasn’t very strong, to say the least. But showing a willingness to give teeth to campaign-finance statutes on the books is a necessary start.