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Ethics Watchdogs Rise to John Edwards’ Defense

A government watchdog group best known for pushing to prosecute wayward lawmakers endorsed former Sen. John Edwards’ request have a criminal case against him dismissed.

The North Carolina Democrat was indicted by a federal grand jury in June on one count of conspiracy, four counts of illegal campaign contributions and one count of false statements for using money from wealthy donors to hide his relationship with his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and their child during his 2008 presidential bid for the White House.

It is the first time that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has supported the dismissal of a case against a lawmaker under investigation. Executive Director Melanie Sloan said that the request to file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Edwards’ legal position is due to the “unprecedented use of the law” to build a campaign finance case against the former vice presidential nominee.

“In the U.S., we don’t prosecute people for being loathsome, we prosecute them for violating the law,” Sloan said in a statement.

The government alleges that Edwards violated the Federal Election Campaign Act when he allowed two wealthy donors, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron, to make payments of more than $900,000 to cover Hunter’s living and medical expenses from 2007 to 2009. The checks were directed to Hunter through an Edwards campaign aide and were used to pay for her rent, car and prenatal care, according to the indictment.

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.

Campaign finance law defines a contribution as money intended “for the purpose of influencing an election.” Sloan said that calling Edwards’ image a campaign asset in order to tie the payments for personal expenses to his campaign could set a dangerous precedent.

“That means they are also saying if you’re a known philanderer, those wouldn’t be campaign costs because you wouldn’t be trying to cover it up,” Sloan said in an interview. “It can’t be that [whether they are campaign contributions] depends on your character.”

At the time of the indictment, legal experts told Roll Call that it would likely be an uphill battle for the federal prosecutors preparing the Edwards case. The Federal Election Commission has issued conflicting advisory opinions about in which situations money given to candidates is a personal gift or a campaign contribution. One of Edwards’ attorneys, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Scott Thomas, told the Justice Department that he cannot recall a single case similar to Edwards’ that was brought during his three decades at the FEC.

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