In his opening statements Monday, lead prosecutor David Harbach told jurors in the John Edwards trial that the defendant “made a choice to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars so that he could become president. And he knew it.” Yet, it’s one thing to say Edwards knowingly used illegal campaign contributions to cover up his affair, but it’s quite another to prove it, and the proof just isn’t there.
No one is denying Edwards’ sins as a husband and father, but to prosecute him on criminal charges that he received and used illegal campaign contributions seems overly aggressive and like a case fraught with problems. The main problem: how do you prove the hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks from Fred Baron and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon were intended for Edwards’ presidential campaign and not a personal gift to a long-standing friend?
The two people who could answer that very question are not testifying since Baron passed away in 2008 and Mellon is now 101-years-old and physically unable to attend trial.
The defense claimed in opening arguments Monday the money was private, not political, and simply meant to help a pregnant woman afford medical care, shelter and baby furniture. Yet, the only witness who can refute those claims is campaign aide Andrew Young, and his testimony will open up a whole new can of worms, including the fact that he originally claimed to be the father of Rielle Hunter’s child.
Young is the only one who can connect the dots, but he’s been caught in so many lies already that his credibility has been seriously undermined and he will be torn apart by Edwards’ defense team. Even if jurors can look past Young’s own shortcomings, including the fact that he apparently reached out to other witnesses to discuss their testimony ahead of trial, his own words will come back to haunt him. In his 2010 book about the Edwards campaign, he claimed the over $900,000 in checks were intended as gifts and therefore not subject to campaign finance laws. With Young as their best witness, the prosecution here is bound to end up with egg on their face.
Yes, Mellon’s checks to Rielle Hunter were funneled suspiciously. As Young testified Tuesday, Mellon made the personal checks, totaling up to $725,000, out to her interior decorator. Her decorator would then co-sign them with Young’s wife in her maiden name to be deposited into their own account. However, this cover-up, though salacious, is not illegal since Mellon paid gift taxes on it. If anything, the fact that the checks were not made out to Edwards himself only goes to further the defense’s claims that the money was personal, and not meant for his presidential campaign.
Even Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group dedicated to holding public officials accountable for their actions, has criticized the prosecution’s case, referring to it as a “remarkably weak case” with “flimsy charges.” The group points to a 2002 Federal Elections Commission enforcement case in which all six commissioners unanimously agreed a loan made to a congressman to help defray the costs of his divorce proceedings was not a campaign contribution because the two had a pre-existing personal relationship, saying, “so too here, Mr. Baron and Mr. Edwards were long-standing friends.”
Perhaps most telling that the prosecution’s case is likely bound to backfire is the fact that Edwards took the risky choice of turning down a plea bargain that would have sparred him any jail time. Had Edwards accepted the plea deal, he would have had to give up his license to practice, and weighing that option with the unlikely prospect of losing a thin case and facing 30 years in prison, he obviously chose to play the odds.
So why would the U.S. Attorney’s office charge Edwards with six criminal counts that they’ll likely be unable to prove? Just as with everything else in this case, it all comes down to politics. George Holding, the U.S. Attorney at the time Edwards was charged in 2011, is now running for a Republican congressional seat and what better platform to run on than to be known as the man responsible for indicting John Edwards. With Holding now on his own campaign trail, the remaining prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s office are now left to try a case that should have never been brought forth in the first place.