Law
4:29 pm
Fri June 1, 2012

Edwards Verdict: A Case Of Campaign Law Confusion

Originally published on Fri June 1, 2012 10:29 pm

From the day a grand jury indicted former Sen. John Edwards on six felony charges nearly one year ago, the case drew jeers from election lawyers and government watchdogs.

"It was an incredibly aggressive prosecution because it was based on a novel theory of the law," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "There was literally no precedent. No case had ever been like this."

Weeks before the indictment in June 2011, Edwards had enlisted a former White House lawyer and former members of the Federal Election Commission to persuade higher-ups at President Obama's Justice Department to pull the plug.

But top officials in Washington refused to block the case against Edwards, a prominent Democrat, so it moved forward with a Republican U.S. attorney in the driver's seat.

That U.S. attorney, George Holding, was a holdover from the George W. Bush administration. Soon after the Edwards charges were announced, Holding announced he would run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Holding didn't return calls seeking answers about the collapse of the case.

"I would say they didn't make the burden, the burden of proof. It wasn't there," Ladonna Foster, a member of the jury that deliberated for nine days, said Friday on NBC's Today show.

Other jurors said they'd been leaning toward a not guilty finding on most of the charges even though Edwards left them feeling uneasy. "I think he was guilty but like we said, the evidence just was not there for us to prove guilt," juror Cindy Aquaro told Today.

Jurors had been asked to decide what Judge Catherine Eagles called a simple question: Did John Edwards intend to keep his political dreams alive and knowingly violate campaign finance laws when his friends shelled out nearly $1 million to support his pregnant mistress?

But legal experts said the judge's instructions to the jury were anything but easy.

"The inability of the jurors to reach a decision on five of the six counts largely reflected society's confusion about campaign finance laws," says Washington lawyer Elliot Berke.

Jury foreman David Recchion told Today that Congress needs to weigh in: "I think there ... needs to be some change in campaign finance law before you go through this process."

And the foreman said lawmakers need to nail down what is and what isn't a campaign contribution.

Recchion said both sets of lawyers did a good job, but the Justice Department — which had the burden of proof — just didn't fill in the gaps.

Some of the blame is being laid at the feet of the public integrity unit at the Justice Department, which took the lead at the trial. The unit withered three years ago after the attorney general backed away from a case against former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens.

Government lawyers withheld evidence that would have helped Stevens. Prosecutor Jack Smith came on to run the public integrity unit after that debacle.

He didn't want to comment about the Edwards case but says he doesn't pay attention to headlines.

"The nature of our work is that you have to, you know, try the hard cases, and bring the cases that you think, you know, the public expects you to bring," says Smith. "And I think our section is doing that."

Smith says he'll keep doing that even if the Edwards mistrial means even more people will be looking over his shoulder.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

With the mistrial yesterday in the campaign finance case against former Senator John Edwards, a debate is now raging. Who is responsible for blowing the prosecution? Was it the judge's instructions to the deadlocked jury, the U.S. attorney in North Carolina who insisted on bringing the indictment in the first place, or the Justice Department higher-ups who let the case go forward?

As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the finger-pointing has begun.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: From the day a grand jury indicted John Edwards on six felony charges nearly one year ago, the case drew jeers from election lawyers and government watchdogs. One of them was Melanie Sloan.

MELANIE SLOAN: It was an incredibly aggressive prosecution because it was based on a novel theory of the law that had - there was, literally, no precedent. No case had ever been like this.

JOHNSON: Weeks before the indictment in June 2011, Edwards had enlisted a former White House lawyer, and former members of the Federal Election Commission, to convince higher-ups at the Obama Justice Department to pull the plug. But top officials in Washington refused to block the case against Edwards, a prominent Democrat. So it moved forward with a Republican U.S. attorney in the driver's seat.

That U.S. attorney, George Holding, was a holdover from the Bush administration and soon after the Edwards charges were announced, Holding announced he would run for a seat in the U.S. Congress. He didn't return calls seeking answers about the collapse of the case.

LADONNA FOSTER: I would say they didn't make the burden. The burden of proof - it wasn't there.

JOHNSON: That's LaDonna Foster, a member of the jury that deliberated for nine days, talking on NBC's "Today Show." Other jurors said they'd been leaning towards a not guilty finding on most of the charges, even though Edwards left them feeling uneasy. Juror Cindy Aquaro.

CINDY AQUARO: I think he was guilty. But like we said, the evidence just was not there for us to prove guilt.

JOHNSON: Jurors had been asked to decide what Judge Catherine Eagles called a simple question. Did John Edwards intend to keep his political dreams alive, and knowingly violate campaign finance laws, when his friends shelled out nearly $1 million to support his pregnant mistress?

But legal experts said the judge's instructions to the jury were anything but easy. Washington lawyer Elliot Berke.

ELLIOT BERKE: The inability of the jurors to reach a decision on five of the six counts largely reflected society's confusion about campaign finance laws.

JOHNSON: Jury foreman David Recchion told NBC that Congress needs to weigh in.

DAVID RECCHION: I think there needs some - need to be some change in campaign finance law before you go through this process.

JOHNSON: And he said lawmakers need to nail down what is, and what isn't, a campaign contribution. The foreman said both sets of lawyers did a good job but the Justice Department, which had the burden of proof, just didn't fill in the gaps.

Some of the blame is being laid at the feet of the Public Integrity Unit at Justice, which took the lead in the trial. The unit withered three years ago, after the attorney general backed away from a case against former Senator Ted Stevens. Government lawyers withheld evidence that would have helped Stevens.

Prosecutor Jack Smith came on to run the Public Integrity Unit after that debacle. He didn't want to comment on the John Edwards case, but he says he doesn't pay attention to headlines.

JACK SMITH: The nature of our work is a bit - you have to, you know, try the hard cases and bring the cases that you think - you know - the public expects you to bring. And I think our section is doing that.

JOHNSON: And he says he'll keep doing that, even if the Edwards mistrial means even more people will be looking over his shoulder.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.