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Preview of the John Edwards Trial and the Potential Problems With the Government’s Case

North Carolina SenatorThe trial of former North Carolina Senator, Vice President nominee and candidate for President Johnny Reid (“John”) Edwards for alleged mishandling of campaign funds is underway in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Opening statements in the case will take place next Monday. The outcome of the trial will be of interest to defense attorneys and those interested in politics or criminal law. The reason for this is that, as the defense has maintained, the government is allegedly prosecuting Edwards under unprecedented theories of criminality.

Edwards was indicted in June of last year (the Indictment is available online here) on one count of conspiracy, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371; four counts of illegal campaign contributions, in violation of 2 U.S.C. § 441a; and one count of false statements, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. The essence of the government’s charges are that Edwards allegedly received “campaign contributions,” within the meaning of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), from wealthy donor Ms. Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and Mr. Fred Baron, his fundraising chief. The funds were allegedly used to keep Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter during her pregnancy and after the birth of her child with Edwards. The funds were not disclosed by the Edwards campaign in its campaign finance reports.

Last September, Edwards’ attorneys filed a Motion to Dismiss the Indictment for Failure to Allege a Crime and Lack of Notice as to What the Law Proscribed. The Court denied the Motion in October. However, the Motion itself provides an interesting preview of the Edwards’ defense.

The defense has argued that no crime occurred under any of the theories alleged in the indictment. More strongly, they argued in their brief that the charges against Edwards are unprecedented in over a century of Federal election law. The FECA makes it a crime to convert campaign contributions to “personal use.” However, it states that campaign “contributions” and “expenditures” must be made “for the purpose of influencing an[ ] election for Federal office.” 2 U.S.C. §§ 431(8)(A)(i) & (9)(A)(i). Edwards’ attorneys have argued that the payments were third-party payments and not campaign contributions for the purpose of influencing an election for Federal office.  They have also argued that Edwards did not have notice and fair warning that the payments were unlawful under the campaign finance laws pursuant to the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In regard to the evidence the defense is expected to argue that the payments from Ms. Mellon and Mr. Baron were solicited and received by Andrew Young, not Edwards. It has contended that the evidence demonstrates that Edwards and his campaign did not receive any of the money directly, and that the money which Edwards and his campaign did raise was all spent on legitimate campaign activities. The monies were all used to pay Hunter’s personal expenses. Furthermore, more than half the monies were paid by Ms. Mellon and Mr. Baron after Edwards’ campaign had ended.

The prosecution is expected to argue that the payments for the benefit of Hunter were clearly for the purpose of influencing Edwards’ campaign by keeping Hunter out of the public’s attention. However, as shown by the filings in the case to date, the prosecution has serious problems with its theories of criminality against Edwards under the FECA. Neither it—nor the public—should be shocked to see Edwards emerge from the courthouse in Greensboro a free man.

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