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Q: I heard that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is lobbying for the dismissal of criminal charges against John Edwards for allegedly violating campaign contribution laws in handling his relationship with his former mistress. This took me aback because I have always thought of CREW as an aggressive advocate for ethics in government. What is it about the charges against Edwards that might be different?
A: On June 3, the Department of Justice filed an indictment against Edwards for alleged violations of federal campaign finance laws. The primary law in question is the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which at the time established a $2,300 limit on the amount that an individual could contribute to a candidate each election. It also requires federal election campaign committees to file periodic reports disclosing each person who contributed more than $200 to the committee within a given period.
The indictment alleges that Edwards conspired with others to violate these laws by accepting and failing to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments from Bunny Mellon and Fred Baron in order to “conceal Edwards’ extramarital affair” and his mistress’s pregnancy with his child.
According to the indictment, “Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy, by, among other things, undermining Edwards’ presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy.”
The case against Edwards hinges on whether the payments by Mellon and Baron qualify as campaign contributions. If they do, Edwards could face liability because he allegedly conspired to receive and not disclose the payments, which far exceeded the annual limit per donor. If, however, they do not qualify as campaign contributions, federal campaign finance laws would not be implicated at all and there would be no basis for the charges against Edwards.
This is where CREW comes in. Last week, CREW made a court filing in support of Edwards’ motion to dismiss the charges against him. CREW states that while it “generally supports the Department of Justice (DOJ) against politicians charged with corruption ... it took the unusual step of filing on the side of Sen. Edwards because of the unique nature of the case.”
At issue, CREW says, is whether the government “can broaden the meaning of ‘contribution’ to prosecute Mr. Edwards for receiving and failing to report payments that were made by two personal friends to his mistress to cover certain of her personal expenses.”
CREW argues that the payments from Mellon and Baron do not qualify as campaign contributions under federal election law. Federal law defines a contribution to mean anything of value that is provided “for the purpose of influencing” a federal election.
According to CREW, the purpose of Mellon’s and Baron’s payments was not to influence an election. Rather, Mellon and Baron “made a series of third-party payments to private individuals based on their pre-existing friendships with Mr. Edwards and completely independent of his candidacy for president.”