Attorneys for former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards today launched a blistering attack on the prosecution’s campaign finance misuse case, calling the government’s theory “crazy” and “radical.”
Appearing before Judge Catherine Eagles in U.S. District Court in Greensboro, N.C., lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell said the case should be tossed here and now. ”The formulation of the crime is a stretch in a radical way,” Lowell asserted.
In the defense’ view, the government has failed to properly allege a crime and, Lowell argued, there is no way that Edwards, or anyone, could have known that payments from third-party donors to support his pregnant mistress would amount to campaign law violations.
“Criminal laws are supposed to be written on the desks of members of Congress,” Lowell said in arguing the first of five defense motions to dismiss the case, “not on the desks of prosecutors who decide after the fact” what is permissible and what is not.
Edwards was charged in June with six felonies surrounding his alleged complicity in a scheme to solicit more than $900,000 from two wealthy donors, which was then used to seclude and support his pregnant mistress, all while Edwards continued his pursuit of the presidency. Edwards entered not guilty pleas to all the counts.
“Maybe the FEC will issue a rule that no candidate can accept a third party payment if it goes to a mistress in an extra-marital affair,” Lowell said today. “Maybe they will do that in the future, but in 2008, it didn’t exist.”
The indictment alleges that the payments that aided Hunter – and kept news of her pregnancy under wraps – violated the election law limits on how much individual donors can contribute to a candidate’s campaign. The conduct rises to a criminal level, the government contends, because Edwards and the donors willfully and knowingly violated the restrictions in a coordinated effort to protect and promote his campaign.
“The defendant knew two wealthy people, who he also knew were willing to help him in any way they could,” said U.S. Justice Department litigator David Harbach in court this morning. “He asked them for money, he asked them to pay expenses’” for the purpose of advancing his candidacy.
When Edwards learned in mid-2007 that Hunter was pregnant, the government alleges that he sought hundreds of thousands of dollars from banking heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who had been an early and generous donor to the campaign and its associated political committees. Mellon’s money was then funneled through a friend of hers – and from there signed over to the control of Andrew Young, then an Edwards’ campaign aide.
Young, who is expected to be the key prosecution witness if the case goes to trial, says he had accepted from Edwards the tasks of supporting Hunter and keeping her out of the public eye. He would eventually go so far as to falsely claim paternity of Hunter’s child, a claim he recanted last year.
When the National Enquirer snapped photos of a visibly pregnant Hunter in December, the indictment alleges Edwards called upon his national campaign finance chairman Fred Baron to fund their escape. As the Iowa caucuses approached, Hunter, Young, his wife and three children went on a cross-country odyssey on private jets, staying in luxury hotels and private homes, including a Christmas week stop at Baron’s palatial second home near Aspen, Colorado.
In court today, Harbach told Judge Eagles that they intend to prove at trial that Edwards knew the payments and expenses were intended to promote his candidacy, and that it doesn’t matter that Edwards never personally received any of the money.
“The defendant doesn’t insulate himself because somebody else cashes the check and spends the money,” argued Harbach. “The defendant doesn’t insulate himself just because he is smart enough not to get his hands dirty.”
Lowell said the government certainly hasn’t met its burden of showing that the payments were unambiguously intended for the campaign, saying that there are alternate interpretations.
“How about that this was an extra-marital affair?” Lowell asked. “There a lot of people who don’t go around advertising extra-marital affairs. How about that this was a third-party payment to a third party for that third party’s expenses? There are a lot of other reasonable explanations. That alone ends the government’s case. That alone ends the inquiry.”
Edwards appeared relaxed throughout the proceedings, chatting casually with reporters about the World Series and occasionally whispering to his attorneys as prosecutors made their arguments.
Later in the afternoon, Judge Eagles heard arguments on four additonal defense motions to dismiss the case, including allegations of a flawed grand jury process, an improperly charged conspiracy, improper venue and abuse of prosecutorial discretion.
The hearing will resume Thursday morning. The Judge has not yet given any indication as to when she intends to rule on the motions to dismiss.