Nation & World

Debate continues over merits of John Edwards case

By Anne BlytheMcClatchy Newspapers

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Nearly two weeks before a federal judge is scheduled to hear arguments about whether criminal charges against John Edwards should be dismissed before trial, attorneys for the former presidential candidate responded to a push from prosecutors to keep the case alive.

In dozens of pages filed in federal court this week, defense attorneys contend that what prosecutors have accused the former senator of is not illegal.

The case is expected to test the sweep of federal campaign finance laws.

“John Edwards’ motion to dismiss this Indictment is based on a simple argument- even if every fact alleged in the Indictment were true, the acts described do not constitute an election law violation,” his attorneys contend in the documents filed this week.

Edwards, a Democrat, is accused of breaking elections laws by secretly obtaining contributions from two wealthy supporters to hide his pregnant mistress from the public during his 2008 presidential run.

The payments covered living, medical and other expenses for Rielle Hunter, a videographer with whom Edwards had an extramarital affair and a child. Prosecutors argue the donations exceeded legal limits and were campaign contributions because they were meant to be used to hide the affair so Edwards could keep his presidential bid alive.

Edwards, 58, has said he did not break the law and asked for the charges against him to be dismissed.

His attorneys argue the payments went from wealthy friends to others — not him — at a time he was trying to hide his infidelity and resulting pregnancy from his wife and family.

They argue the $900,000 in question went from his wealthy friends, to others, not him, and should be considered gifts.

“The court should be careful not to adopt the government’s radical theory because it would invite chaos into federal election law.” the defense team argues.

Edwards is the first person to be criminally prosecuted under the theory that such payments — going from one person’s private account to the private account of someone other than the candidate — can be deemed a campaign contribution.

There has been no such civil enforcement action either, his attorneys contend.

Though prosecutors contend otherwise, defense attorneys argue the prosecution of Edwards was rooted in the political ambitions of George Holding, the former U.S. attorney and George W. Bush appointee, at the helm of the investigation.

In their response this week to prosecutors’ recent flurry of filings, defense attorneys continue to focus on Holding’s participation in the investigation.

Holding, a Republican who recently announced his plans to seek a congressional seat in 2012, until the conclusion of the Edwards investigation was the chief prosecutor for the federal Eastern district which stretches from Raleigh east to the North Carolina coast.

Edwards, though, lives outside Chapel Hill in the federal Middle District, where the case landed shortly before charges were brought this summer.

Defense attorneys contend that Holding had a conflict of interest in that he was contributor to the campaign of former Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998, when Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Defense attorneys have sought dismissal of the case against Edwards based, in part, on their contentions that the campaign was an abuse of prosecutorial discretion.

Prosecutors have rebutted such claims, saying career prosecutors worked the investigation.

“The government does not explain, for example, why Mr. Holding’s past campaign contributions to Mr. Edwards’ opponent during his 1998 Senate race did not present a conflict of interest warranting his recusal,” Edwards’ defense team said in their court filings this week.

Holding was held over as the Eastern district’s chief prosecutor after his term to manage investigations into Edwards and former Gov. Mike Easley, also a Democrat, defense attorneys contend, because President Barack Obama’s nominee for U.S. attorney, Thomas Walker, had donated money to the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004 and was thus deemed to have a conflict.

Those issues and others are likely to be further argued in a hearing set for Oct. 26 in a Greensboro, N.C., courtroom.