Is John Edwards verdict the last straw for campaign finance?

A jury found John Edwards not guilty of the most serious charge, and the judge declared a mistrial on the others. The verdict is part of the changing landscape of campaign finance, experts say.

John Adkisson/Reuters
Former Sen. John Edwards makes a statement with his daughter, Cate Edwards (l.), father Wallace Edwards (c.), and mother Bobbie Edwards (r.) after the jury reached a verdict at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., Thursday.

John Edwards may have committed many sins, as his defense attorney noted, but a North Carolina jury on Thursday did not convict him of any crimes.

The jury returned a not guilty verdict on the key charge in the federal campaign corruption trial against Mr. Edwards – that the former Democratic presidential candidate allegedly helped to illegally funnel over $700,000 in hush money from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. The jury deadlocked on the five other counts against him, and Judge Catherine Eagles declared a mistrial.

The verdict came on the ninth day of deliberations at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., as a diverse jury attempted to weigh the prosecution’s contention that Edwards illegally used campaign donations to hide a mistress, Rielle Hunter, and a love child from voters and his ailing wife. The long deliberations, with the jury asking the judge for dozens of exhibits, suggested that jurors were struggling with complex and often vague campaign laws that require prosecutors to prove “intent” to break election law.

The verdict came as a blow to the US Justice Department’s embattled Public Integrity Division, which recently saw several prosecutors dismissed for their role in the bungled prosecution of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. It’s also sure to raise questions about whether the case should have been brought in the first place, given that Edwards was no longer a political figure and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) had not ruled against Edwards.

More broadly, though, the prosecution's loss – combined with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which allowed freer flow of campaign funds in the political system – appears to set a high bar for what constitutes illegal behavior in the realm of campaign funding.

“The fact is, we’re going to see many fewer cases brought of this kind, largely because the Supreme Court has said we want more deregulation in this area, more freedom from government regulations,” legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who has written extensively about Citizens United for the New Yorker magazine, said on CNN.

At its core, the case is about whether Edwards, once a rising star in Democratic politics, “willfully” took and concealed the money to protect his presidential campaign. Some legal analysts say the government’s unusual decision to bring criminal charges against Edwards even after the formal civil-elections body, the FEC, failed to come to any conclusions about whether the donations were illegal could have chilled American politics. 

“If Edwards is successfully prosecuted, we may be entering an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world where conduct that would not draw the ire of civil law enforcement can lead to prison” for politicians, Allison Hayward, a vice president at the Center for Competitive Politics, writes Thursday in a Politico op-ed.

As it is, his acquittal spoke just as loudly about the role of money in American politics, especially at the presidential level, others said. “If this is a legal precedent, we will rue this day,” the conservative columnist David Frum said, suggesting that the verdict opens the doors wide open to “what people who might be president can do with money that donors give them.”

After the defense and prosecution rested their cases on May 16, the jury drew attention to itself in unusual ways. At one point, newspapers reported that one of a group of alternate jurors flirted with Edwards. A flurry of recent deliberations turned out to center around jurors wanting to attend graduation ceremonies for children and relatives.

Edwards, a former US senator who was the vice presidential nominee in 2004 and an early favorite for the 2008 presidential nomination, had an option to take a plea bargain instead of going to trial, but only if he would agree to some jail time and forego his law license. He refused. If he had been convicted on all counts, he would have faced as many as 30 years in prison.

Edwards took note of the jury’s “diligence” in a statement after the verdict was read, and suggested that he understands that he was ultimately responsible for the pain he caused to those closest to him, and the role he played in his own downfall.

“There is no one else responsible for my sins,” Edwards said. “If I want to find the person who should be held accountable for my sins, I don’t have to go any further than the mirror. It’s me and me alone."

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