Bessent: Case against Edwards goes too far

Former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate John Edwards

Former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate John Edwards arrives at federal court in Greensboro, N.C., Monday, April 23, 2012. (Credit: AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Alvin Bessent

Portrait of Newsday editorial board member Alvin Bessent Alvin Bessent

Alvin Bessent joined the Newsday editorial board in 1993. He

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John Edwards is easy to dislike. The former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate was a pig of a husband who had a tawdry affair and a love child while his late wife was battling breast cancer. There's nothing honorable in such self-centered betrayal.

But Edwards isn't charged with being a dog in the federal trial that opened yesterday in a courthouse in Greensboro, N.C. He's charged with violating campaign finance laws -- charges that stretch the concept of campaign contributions beyond reason and make covering up an affair a criminal offense.

Edwards is accused of accepting almost $1 million in secret "campaign contributions" from two old friends, failing to report it and funneling the money through intermediaries to the other woman, Rielle Hunter, for living expenses including her car, rent, air travel and prenatal care. One of those intermediaries is former aide and prosecution witness Andrew Young, who for a time claimed to have fathered Hunter's child.

The prosecution's theory, laid out in a June 2011 indictment, is that "a centerpiece of Edwards' candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man." If the affair and pregnancy had become public it would have hurt his presidential run, the thinking goes. So the money from his friends was "provided for the purpose of influencing the presidential election" -- which made it campaign contributions.

That's the logic that led to Johnny Reid Edwards, as he's identified in the indictment, being charged with six criminal counts, including conspiracy to accept and receive contributions from individuals in excess of the amount election law allows, concealing that fact, and failing to report the contributions to the Federal Election Commission.

He obviously wanted to keep his cavorting secret. What philandering husband -- even those not running for political office -- doesn't? If the messy business had come out during the campaign, he would have had some very uncomfortable, very public explaining to do.

But from there, the case is a real stretch.

The disputed money came from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Fred Baron, who were Edwards' friends long before he ran for president. It wasn't given directly to Edwards -- but it wasn't given to his campaign either. It never went into his campaign accounts. The money was given to third parties who funneled it to Hunter, who had a brief role in the campaign as a videographer.

The money changed hands from 2007 to 2009, which means the payments continued even after Edwards -- who has plenty of money of his own -- pulled the plug on his campaign in January 2008. Even then, Edwards didn't support Hunter out of his own pocket.

That doesn't sound like a man looking to hide illegal campaign contributions. It sounds more like a man who wanted to take care of his mistress and turned to friends for help because he didn't want his wife -- who wrote she learned of the affair in 2006 -- to know the two were still in contact and had a baby together. Edwards insists he just wanted to spare his wife, Elizabeth, the public humiliation.

If that set of facts makes the money a campaign contribution then anything of value given to anyone connected in any way to a candidate is a campaign contribution. That would be regulation run amok -- and totally at odds with the usual enforcement of campaign finance laws.

Edwards should have been a notorious cheat rather than a sneaky one. That wouldn't have made the man any more likable, but he wouldn't be the target of such an overzealous prosecution. Alvin Bessent is a member of the Newsday editorial board.