Move over, Secret Service sex scandal. John Edwards is back.For his ignominious final act, America’s Cad sits as a defendant in federal court, charged with using lavish presidential campaign donations to conceal knowledge of his affair and love child. The trial, which began yesterday, threatens to span six weeks and serenade us anew with the tawdry details of his Shakespearean plummet. Betraying his cancer-stricken wife, allowing his mistress to videotape their sex, lying publicly about his paternity for 16 months while selling himself as a family-values guy (“faith, family, responsibility”)…you know the sins already.But one of his defense lawyers probably had it right yesterday when she said, “John Edwards is a man who committed many sins, but no crime.”This is is really about thorny issues of legality, not morality. I recognize that focusing on campaign finance law in a John Edwards trial is a lot like reading Playboy magazine for the articles, but let’s try anyway. Because it seems specious to prosecute somebody for trying to cover up an affair. Since when do we criminalize bad behavior?The federal prosecutors argue that Edwards used unreported donations to keep Hunter under wraps, for the purpose of saving his ’08 presidential bid. Under the campaign finance laws, donations from an individual are capped at $25,000 for each election cycle – but rich heiress Bunny Mellon, an Edwards friend in her late 90s, ponied up $725,000 on the sly, and virtually all of it was spent on Project Hunter. Mellon may not have known that the money was specifically used to hide an affair, but she had told an Edwards aide, in writing, that she was willing to foot the bill for anything deemed “necessary and important,” including the candidate’s expensive haircuts.The jurors could look at that issue two ways. They could agree with the prosecutors and conclude that Edwards illegally used campaign money to hide an affair that would’ve destroyed a candidacy built on the theme of family values (although they’d also need to conclude that Edwards knew he was violating the law). Or they could go in the other direction. They could decide that Bunny Mellon was just trying to help out a longtime personal friend, as evidenced by the fact that she gave lavishly to Edwards before he ran for president and continued as a benefactor after he dropped out.As you can see already, the trial could get very murky. But in the interests of clarity, here’s a quick take from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan watchdog group that routinely targets sleazy politicians in both parties. Referring to Edwards behavior, CREW says, “It was loathsome. It was despicable. It was reprehensible. It was any similar adjective you can think of.” However, the decision to prosecute Edwards, to treat payments to Hunter as unreported campaign donations, is “ludicrous, absurd, and stupid…Also, dangerous.”CREW’s basic view – which is endorsed by some prominent conservatives – is that the federal case against Edwards is a classic example of government overreach. An Edwards conviction would set a bad precedent; in the future, any and all donations, even those of a most personal nature, would be grist for regulation. As CREW argued in a brief it submitted when Edwards was indicted, “the government’s near boundless theory of criminal liability would sweep in anything of value given directly or in directly to a candidate.” For instance, if a rich benefactor wanted to pay the medical bills of a sick campaign aide, that could be deemed a campaign contribution because the aide’s return to health might benefit the candidate’s bid for office. And if a fiscally conservative candidate paid off his personal debts with financial help from a friend, the friend’s payments would have to be treated as a campaign contribution (probably breaching the federal limit) – on based on the theory (per the Edwards precedent) that the candidate was trying to protect his public image as a fiscal conservative.I believe this is called the law of unintended consequences.Really, what’s the point of policing political behavior to this extent? As National Review editor Rich Lowry writes today, “John Edwards belongs under a rock, not in jail.” The feds would be smarter to prioritize the clear-cut cases, like when Democratic congressman William Jefferson got caught with $90,000 in his freezer. As for Edwards, the moral verdict on him was tendered nearly four years ago, and in the latest CBS News-New York Times poll, his approval rating stands at three percent. Yes, three percent. For a guy who once gorged on public adoration, that stat may be sufficient punishment.
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