Pitiful or criminal?

    In the annals of boys behaving badly, it’s still tough to top John Edwards.Yes, unfortunately he’s back in the news.  We can debate endlessly amongst ourselves whether the former Democratic presidential candidate is scummier than his most recent BBB rivals (John Ensign, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn), but there will always be a special place in the amoral sweepstakes for a guy who betrays his cancer-stricken wife by bedding a ditsy babe on the side. And allowing her to videotape their sex. And impregnating her. And lying publicly about his paternity for 16 months. All this, after trying to sell himself to the electorate as a family man with an idyllic marriage (in his words, “faith, family, responsibility”).Back in January 2010, when Edwards copped to having sired a love child (“I am Quinn’s father”), it appeared that his sordid saga had finally lurched to closure and that he would blessedly go away. Wrong. The moral verdict on Edwards may have been clear by that point, but the legal issues had yet to be fully examined. The U.S. Justice Department was very interested in knowing whether Edwards had broken any campaign finance laws during the period when several rich benefactors ponied up a million bucks to ensure that Rielle Hunter and her baby remained hidden from the voters.And now the feds are reportedly ready to bring criminal charges. By all accounts, they are prepared to contend that Edwards covered up his extramarital affair in order to protect his 2008 presidential bid, with off-the-books money that should have been listed as campaign donations. So Edwards basically has two choices: He can fight the charges in a trial (defense lawyer Greg Craig said yesterday that his client “has done wrong in his life…but he did not break the law”); or he can cop a plea (although the feds might insist that he plead to a felony, thereby imperiling his law license and risking a jail sentence.)We already knew the guy was pitiful. The question today is whether he should be tagged as a criminal.It’s not a crime to breach the sacrament of marriage, or to lie about it, or to sell oneself as a virtuous candidate while behaving otherwise. I’m just wondering whether it’s a worthy use of Justice Department man hours to prosecute a sleazebag for the resultant misuse of the campaign-finance paperwork. And I feel the same way about John Ensign, the ex-Republican senator who bedded the wife of a top aide. The Justice Department might file charges against him as well, alleging that a key transaction ($96,000 in hush money, payable from Ensign’s parents to the wife and her cuckolded spouse) may have violated the campaign-finance laws.Granted, a compelling argument can be made that these are salient public corruption issues, that the finance laws would be rendered meaningless if bad-behaving politicians are allowed to play fast and loose with their benefactors’ money. Still, I’m tempted to agree with conservative blogger Kevin Williamson, who argued yesterday, on the National Review website, that while Edwards’ behavior has been “unethical, distasteful, dishonest, vulgar,” he questioned whether it should be judged “illegal.” He wrote that “conning your gullible rich pals into underwriting your fling (and conning one of your sycophants into temporarily claiming paternity of the resulting offspring) is pretty awful behavior…but I do not see which part of that contains an element of what we now think of as a crime.”Maybe what we already know about Edwards is sufficient: Hunter and child were hidden away, flown around the country, and housed comfortably, thanks to the generous largess of Fred Baron (a Texas trial lawyer) and Bunny Mellon (a banking heiress, now 100 years old, who sent $700,000 packed in candy boxes). At the time, Edwards had cajoled his chief sycophant, aide Andrew Young, to protect the boss and falsely claim that he was the child’s father. And Edwards was in direct contact with Mellon; at one point, according to a voice mail message that has since surfaced, Edwards told Young: “Andrew, it’s John. I had a wonderful conversation – a long and wonderful conversation with Bunny. I think we can completely count on her. I just wanted you to hear that.” (So Edwards was indeed right when he said there were “two Americas.” In his entitled America, rogues can raise a million dollars from rich friends to mask their transgressions.)Edwards has naturally denied that he knew anything about any cover up; as he insisted on ABC News, in August 2008, “I’ve never paid a dime of money to any of the people that are involved, I’ve never asked anybody to pay a dime of money, never been told that any money’s been paid. Nothing’s been done at my request. So if the allegation is that somehow I participated in the payment of money, that is a lie, an absolute lie.” Yeah, sure. This was the same interview where he lied about fathering any love child.The Edwards camp and the Justice Department are reportedly arguing about a plea, with the option of going to trial. But, for us laymen, the legal issues are mere technicalities. Who really cares whether Bunny Mellon intended her money to be a personal gift for “furniture” (as she claims), as opposed to a campaign donation? What difference does it make whether the hush money came directly from an Edwards campaign account (unlikely), or whether it was laundered through an Edwards-affiliated front group (more likely)? The Justice Department, as a matter of law, would have to prove that Edwards knowingly orchestrated the cover up and knowingly steered the hush money away from his campaign coffers in order to protect his candidacy. Those legal hurdles are daunting – and unnecessary. Our moral verdict on Edwards was rendered correctly a long time ago. Perhaps the Justice lawyers would be doing us all a big favor by dropping this case. Then perhaps Edwards would finally go away and this story will be gone, forever and ever.

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