Edwards turned down plea deal on misdemeanors?

Observers had predicted that John Edwards would agree to a plea deal that would allow him to keep his law license, but Politico reports today that Edwards had such a deal on the table — and refused it.  Faced with six months in prison, Edwards decided to roll the dice on a trial instead:

Former presidential candidate John Edwards turned down a deal last week that would have had him pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges – and avoiding the felony campaign finance charges he faces – because it also would have put him behind bars for six months, according to a report.

Edwards and his lawyers were considering accepting the deal, the Raleigh News and Observer reported Sunday, but wanted the ability to argue for an arrangement that would allow him to spend time with Emma Claire and Jack, his two younger children with Elizabeth Edwards, who died in December. Under the deal, he would have pled guilty to three misdemeanor campaign law finance violations.

Edwards’s lawyers thought they wouldn’t be able to argue for him to go to a halfway house, be on house arrest or have weekend releases, sources told the paper, and without that assurance, they walked away from a deal. Prosecutors wanted him to serve six months in jail as part of the deal, the paper said.

The deal that had Edwards pleading guilty to misdemeanors was better than what his lead lawyer, former White House counsel Gregory Craig, had gotten out of months of Justice Department negotiations. Until recently, the News-Observer said, the plea deal would have required Edwards to plead guilty to at least one felony. But he might have been able to avoid jail while paying a fine.

Publicly, Edwards maintained his innocence in his statement to the media in this brief statement:

There has been considerable skepticism about the Department of Justice’s case against Edwards, including by my two friends at Power Line, John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson. John calls this prosecution “unfortunate” and “another step in the Criminalization of Nearly Everything”:

I am no fan of John Edwards, but this prosecution strikes me as unfortunate. Based on a quick review, it does not seem to be an indefensible application of the campaign finance laws, although the government’s theory, as Edwards’ lawyer put it, is “novel and untested.” But what’s the point? The campaign finance laws are intended to keep candidates on a level playing field. (Some would say they are mainly intended to promote the re-election of incumbents, but that is a debate for another day.) The money that was spent here didn’t go for campaign ads or get-out-the-vote efforts. It was invisible to voters. It allowed Edwards to keep his wife (and voters too, of course) in the dark about his girlfriend and baby and relieved Edwards of the need to support them. Those are hardly noble objectives, but is policing this sort of misconduct really the function of campaign finance laws?

The prosecutors tried to gild their dubious lily by including in the indictment the allegation that Edwards “made false statements” “on national television.” This was alleged to be one of the “overt acts” in furtherance of Edwards’ criminal conspiracy. But lying to reporters isn’t a crime; if it were, we would have a hard time staffing Congress. (Anthony Weiner is just the latest in a long line of politicians who illustrate the point.)

This prosecution strikes me as another step in the Criminalization of Nearly Everything.

Scott answers a question I raised last week about gift taxes, noting that Rachel “Bunny” Mellon did indeed file a gift tax return for her largesse to Edwards.  He also suggests that the charges in this case seem better suited to academic debate than a real test in court:

The question seems to me more appropriate for a law school exam exploring the outer limits of campaign finance law than for testing in the real world.

Mrs. Mellon wanted to provide financial assistance to John Edwards, but she did so in a circuitous manner. Mrs. Mellon made payments amounting to some $725,000 in the form of checks made out checks to a friend, who forwarded them to the wife of the Edwards aide who served as the middleman directing funds to the support of Edwards’s mistress.

According to the Los Angeles Times, quoting Mrs. Mellon’s attorney, Mrs. Mellon intended the payments as a personal gift to Edwards and filed a gift tax return. However, the indictment quotes a note from Mrs. Mellon stating that the funds were to defray expenses for “all haircuts,etc. that are necessary and important for [Edwards’s] campaign. . . .It is a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”

Baron also made his payments in a circuitous, but more deceptive, manner. According to the indictment, he attempted to conceal the specific purpose of the payments, amounting to about $200,000. As with Mrs. Mellon’s funds, Baron’s payments went to support the personal expenses of Edwards’s mistress .

The question about excessive criminalization is better applied, I believe, to campaign finance restrictions themselves.  Having established limits on campaign contributions, the federal government has to enforce them.  If candidates are allowed to get “gifts” from wealthy benefactors to cover up wrongdoing during a campaign, that makes the campaign finance limitations rather meaningless.  Would it be OK for corporations to give candidates “gifts” of jets, air time to discuss the weather, and so on?

Most of us who have balked at McCain-Feingold have done so on the principle that people should be able to donate what they like, and that candidates should provide immediate and complete transparency on receipts and expenditures related to their activities to allow others to judge their motivations and actions.  Edwards not only believed exactly the opposite, he championed an end to private donations altogether.  Hypocrisy is not criminal, of course, or everyone would spend a little time in jail — but it does make it very difficult for anyone to take a sympathetic approach to Edwards’ back-door money bombs.