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Edwards Case May Test Bounds of Law

Prosecution Wades Into ‘Murky’ Area of Campaign Finance

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The indictment of two-time presidential candidate John Edwards on Friday for conspiring to cover up gifts he accepted to obscure an extra-marital affair could signal the Justice Department’s desire to step up enforcement of campaign finance law.

But legal experts say securing a conviction could be a bumpy road.

There are significant roadblocks prosecutors must overcome to make the case that the former Senator  knowingly and willfully violated campaign finance law — the standard of proof required in a criminal case — given that the Federal Election Commission has issued conflicting opinions about in which situations money given to candidates is a personal gift or a campaign contribution, legal experts said last week.

“This is an unprecedented prosecution ... no one would have known, or should have known, or could have been expected to know, that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions. And there was no way Sen. Edwards knew that fact either,” Edwards’ lead counsel, Gregory Craig, said outside the Winston-Salem courthouse following the indictment. Edwards pleaded not guilty.

Edwards, 57, was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday on charges of knowingly receiving and concealing contributions of more than $925,000 from two wealthy donors from 2007 to 2009. They are not named in the documents but are known to be Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the 100-year-old widow of billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon, and Fred Baron, a Texas trial lawyer and prominent Democratic fundraiser at that time. The money was used to pay living and travel expenses for Edwards’ mistress, videographer Rielle Hunter.

Edwards’ legal team says the campaign committee did not report these donations, which were well in excess of the $2,300 legal limit on individual contributions for the primary, because they were private gifts intended to keep his mistress and their child a secret from his wife, Elizabeth, who died of cancer in December. Federal prosecutors believe those donations should have been reported publicly as campaign contributions because Edwards’ bid for the Democratic nomination relied in part on his image as a devoted father and family man.

The Edwards prosecution will be the most high-profile case brought by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section since the botched prosecution of former Sen. Ted Stevens, who died in a plane crash in 2010. Though a jury convicted the Alaskan of lying about gifts on his Senate financial disclosure forms, a judge voided the verdict against the Republican lawmaker after finding the prosecution team had failed to disclose evidence to the defense as required by law.

Experts say that for the Justice Department to secure a conviction of Edwards, it would require a broad reading of what constitutes a campaign contribution, which is further complicated by conflicting precedent set in similar civil cases considered by the FEC.

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