Last I checked, the United States was in the middle of a white collar crime wave -- with new revelations every day about wrongdoing by major financial institutions, billions lost to tax evasion, large-scale ripoffs of the government by private contractors, and an epidemic of Medicare fraud that is costing billions every year. We hear all the time that the feds just don't have the resources to go after all the well-heeled bad guys, especially given all the manpower that has been focused on terrorism since 9/11.
So why has the government spent two years -- and a small fortune -- investigating former presidential candidate John Edwards for violating campaign finance laws?
I'm all for holding individuals accountable for their transgressions. And I'm all for cracking down on political corruption and the insidious ways in which money subverts our democracy. But triage is a fact of life at the Department of Justice, which must make tough choices about how to deploy scarce law enforcement resources. A sensible approach would be to prioritize alleged or potential crimes that cause the most harm. Beyond keeping us safe from terrorism and other violent threats, the Justice Department might logically prioritize corporate crimes that put public health or safety at risk, like illegally poisoning drinking water or knowingly marketing deadly drugs (as Merck allegedly did with Vioxx). Next on the list would be financial crimes that cause individuals -- and especially vulnerable retirees -- economic hardship. There's no shortage of such cases to pick from these days. After that, the feds should focus on crimes that all taxpayers pay mightily for -- contractor abuses, Medicare fraud and tax evasion. Enforcing campaign finance laws is important, but because it's a less urgent priority, the feds should make very careful choices about how to expend resources here.
Is there a strong argument for prioritizing a criminal prosecution of John Edwards? I don't think so.
While the Justice Department clearly feels that it has a solid case against Edwards, it is hard to see the broader point of this exercise. Edwards is no longer in office or running for anything, and thus doesn't have opportunities for further wrongdoing (in contrast, say, to Senator Ted Stevens who was prosecuted by DOJ a few years ago). Also, this case involves no larger pattern of corruption whereby campaign money was used to advance private interests in ways that caused harm to the public interest.
I can think of plenty of bigger fish to fry when it comes to political corruption. For instance, a lawsuit filed earlier this month in New Mexico alleges that the State Investment Council there, which is supposed to boost economic development, invested tens of millions of dollars to reward political donors of former Governor Bill Richardson. These kinds of "pay-for-play arrangements are quite common, but often go unpunished because investigators just don't have the resources to deal with them. Likewise, politically well-connected contractors routinely get away with cheating the government.
Edwards' misdeeds seem negligible in comparison -- more the stuff of a bad soap opera than a dysfunctional democracy. What allegedly happened is that Edwards used campaign money to help cover up his affair with his mistress, Rielle Hunter. More specifically, it seems that Edwards' donors put up money to support Hunter while she tried to avoid the media and gave birth to Edwards' child. The details remain murky, but it seems that those funds didn't come in as campaign donations but were given in the form of separate gifts. Edwards' lawyer says that one of the donors, the heiress Bunny Mellon, considered this money a personal gift to Edwards and filed a gift tax return. Regardless, this clearly isn't a case of illegal donations being used for election expenses -- which is what campaign finance laws are mainly intended to guard against.
Did Edwards behave terribly? Yes. Did he break the law? Maybe. But does all of this rival more typical cases of campaign finance corruption where candidates secretly circumvent contribution limits or donors get a "pay-for-play" reward at taxpayer expense? No.
Edwards is ruined. The episode is now nearly four years in the past. And one of the key witnesses -- Mellon -- is a reclusive 100-year-old woman. The feds should forget about this tawdry nonsense and focus on more pressing wrongdoing. The Federal Elections Commission, not the Department of Justice, should handle the allegations against Edwards and impose a civil penalty against him if the evidence warrants.
One last point, just to be bi-partisan here: DOJ should also take a pass on prosecuting Senator John Ensign, who also may have broken the law to deal with the fallout of an extramarital affair and who resigned earlier this month in total disgrace. The case is now being reviewed by U.S. prosecutors, but surely DOJ can find a dusty shelf for that file, too.