By Ned Barnett
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Attorneys for former presidential hopeful John Edwards said on Wednesday that the federal charges against him should be thrown out, arguing even if he did all that was alleged it did not amount to a crime.
Lawyer Abbe Lowell, who recently joined Edwards' defense team, told a judge in Greensboro, North Carolina that the government had failed to show how gifts from one third party to another constituted a campaign finance law violation by the former candidate.
At issue is the $900,000 prosecutors say was provided by two of Edwards' wealthy supporters to help him hide an affair and a child he had with his former campaign videographer during his failed bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator and John Kerry's vice presidential running mate, was indicted in June on six counts, including conspiracy, accepting illegal campaign contributions and making false statements. A trial is scheduled for January.
Lowell said the government was improperly setting a new standard for candidate responsibility.
"Criminal laws are meant to be written on the desks of members of Congress," Lowell said. "They're not supposed to be written on the desks of prosecutors."
But prosecutor David Harbach responded that the law was clear, and it would be up to a jury to decide whether Edwards violated it. The fact that Edwards did not directly receive the gifts did not mean he didn't benefit from them in violation of federal contribution limits and reporting laws, Harbach said.
"He doesn't insulate himself from liability just because he's smart enough not to get his hands dirty," Harbach said.
Lowell also said the case should be dismissed because it was a politically motivated prosecution pushed by then-U.S. Attorney George Holding. Appointed by former President George W. Bush, Holding has since left office and is running for Congress as a Republican.
Prosecutors said Justice Department officials under Democratic President Barack Obama's watch approved of the case going forward.
Arguments about two other pieces of the five-part motion were discussed in a closed session because they involved grand jury testimony.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles issued no ruling and asked the lawyers to return Thursday morning to further discuss the motion.
Absent from the defense team on Wednesday was Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, often described as North Carolina's dean of defense attorneys. Smith formally withdrew as Edwards' attorney earlier this week after prosecutors raised a possible conflict of interest issue.
Before the indictment, Smith had consulted with a lawyer for Rachel Mellon, one of the two supporters who provided the gifts that helped house and support Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter. Smith's potential conflict was that he might be called as witness to describe that discussion.
Edwards, a former trial attorney, appeared relaxed as he listened intently to the court proceedings. He spoke briefly in response to questions from Eagles about a second conflict of interest concern regarding attorney Lowell.
Lowell had represented Lisa Blue-Baron, the wife of the second supporter, the late Fred Baron, who was Edwards' national campaign finance chairman. Edwards said he wanted to retain Lowell even if the attorney is barred from questioning witnesses with whom he has ties.
Last Saturday, Edwards enjoyed a break from his legal travails when he attended the wedding of daughter Cate at a church in Chapel Hill. Edwards' wife and Cate's mother, Elizabeth Edwards, died of cancer last December.
(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)