As a U.S. senator, John Edwards, a staunch defender of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, decried "a system in which huge amounts of money (continue to) flow unregulated into the campaign process and ordinary people feel as if their vote makes no difference anymore."
Last week, a federal grand jury indicted the North Carolina Democrat for allegedly violating federal election law by funneling nearly $1 million in campaign contributions -- in violation of the $2,300 federal campaign contribution limit -- to conceal an extramarital affair while he ran for president in 2008.
Edwards denies any guilt.
"I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law," Edwards told reporters last week.
Then again, Edwards also denied having an affair with Rielle Hunter -- before he admitted to the affair, while denying he was the father of her child -- only to admit later that he was the father.
This may be a good place to note: Edwards is a lawyer. And Washington is a town of lawyers. The knee-jerk Beltway reaction has been to call Edwards a dirtball but then intone that his actions probably did not constitute a federal crime.
GOP attorney Victoria Toensing summed up that attitude when she described the case as "legally dubious but factually devastating."
Forget the conventional wisdom about the cover-up often being worse than the crime. The Washington Post editorialized, "There is scant evidence that Mr. Edwards understood the payments to be campaign contributions."
Even campaign finance reform scolds have gotten in on the act. Melanie Sloan of the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in
Washington (D.C.) criticized the Department of Justice for pushing a "remarkably weak case" that is likely to leave the department "with egg on its face."
Hmmm. Do you think that could be because Edwards was the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee? If John Kerry had won, Edwards would have been one heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
The indictment charges that big donors Bunny Mellon and the late Fred Baron (Persons C and D) paid $725,000 and $200,000 to keep Hunter quiet while Edwards pursued the presidency as "a devoted family man."
Sloan told me, "If Fred Baron" -- an old friend of Edwards -- or the 100-year-old Mellon "wanted to spend his money supporting John Edwards' mistress, that was his business."
Think about that. A major campaign-finance do-gooder is arguing that if rich guys want to ladle close to $1 million in hush money to bankroll a cover-up by a presidential hopeful, that's probably legal.
Republican campaign finance attorney Jan Baran observed that this is not a "run-of-the-mill" election prosecution. But: "We have a pretty rigorous campaign finance system." The $2,300 limit "seems a little quaint" if wealthy donors can funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to benefit a candidate outside the campaign.
Baran told me he is collecting the names of all the campaign-finance lawyers "who have said this is not illegal, and I'm going to seek from them an opinion letter the next time I get a high net-worth individual as a client who wants to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defraying the expenses of presidential candidates."