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Bread, Circuses, and the Edwards Prosecution

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Cross-posted from Harper's Magazine

Last week, in a courtroom in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Justice Department launched its latest political charade in the guise of a public-integrity prosecution. Former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, a man with whom President Obama once broached the possibility of an appointment as attorney general, faces charges that he spent nearly $1 million in campaign donations to cover up an embarrassing sexual liaison. This, prosecutors insist, was a federal crime, for which Edwards could spend as many as 30 years in prison and face a $1.5 million fine.

Meanwhile, on televisions across the state, a well-financed G.O.P. advertising campaign, apparently timed to coincide with the trial, is launching broadsides against sexual indiscretions and moral laxity by leading figures in the North Carolina Democratic Party. And in North Carolina's thirteenth congressional district, which sweeps in a crescent north and west from Raleigh, George Holding is seeking to reclaim the district for the G.O.P. Holding is both a dedicated Republican activist and the Bush-era U.S. attorney who launched a criminal probe targeting Edwards, the former darling of North Carolina Democrats. As a U.S. attorney, Holding championed the idea of charging Edwards with election-finance crimes. Election-law experts around the country view Holding's theories as borderline crackpot, but the Holder Justice Department, fearing that it would be accused of partisanship, allowed Holding to stay on and gave him free rein to pursue the case, even as his other objectives--tilting the political balance in the state toward the G.O.P. and winning a seat in Congress for himself -- were open secrets.

The Edwards prosecutors may well win their case, but not because any crime was involved. Rather, they're likely to win because John Edwards is one of the most reviled politicians in the United States, and so a choice target. No doubt his affair, undertaken while his heroic wife was dying of cancer, makes him the definition of a cad, but while he may be morally unsuited for high office, that is not the question in this trial. If Edwards can be imprisoned for using campaign funds to try to cover up his flaws, then few politicians could fairly escape prison. The Justice Department appears instead to be engaged in statutory vandalism, and it is awarding itself exceptional power to intrude into the electoral process -- a power that is ripe for abuse, as the Edwards case demonstrates.

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The DOJ's public-integrity prosecutions have careened in recent years from one humiliation to the next, with little thought for the damage the department is doing to the law or to its own reputation. First came the prosecutions of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, both cases in which the department secured convictions through false evidence, as prosecutors suppressed exculpatory materials that established the innocence of the defendants. Then came the $40 million Alabama bingo prosecution, touted by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer as a demonstration of the department's commitment to stopping bribery in the legislative process. That case ended with acquittals across the board, after the evidence demonstrated not corruption, but the duping of the DOJ by political hacks with racist motives -- as the judge himself pointed out.

After these serial calamities, public-integrity prosecutors are now sallying forth with the Edwards trial, providing fodder for the National Enquirer and Entertainment Tonight while provoking disgust from commentators across the political spectrum who are seriously concerned about political ethics and campaign finance regulation. As the Justice Department has pursued these cases, draining the public coffer and trust, it has failed to prosecute other, more important crimes. The financial collapse that occurred in the fourth quarter of 2008 was caused by some of the most massive fraud and most spectacular failure of regulatory oversight in the nation's history. In large measure, this failure belonged to the DOJ's Criminal Division, which is ultimately responsible for oversight and enforcement. Four years after the crisis, the department maintains its posture of somnolence in the face of systemic, widely documented fraud.

An excellent example comes in the case of Countrywide Financial Corp, which saw former employees like Eileen Foster, the recipient of this year's Ridenhour Prize for Truth-telling, expose themselves to enormous risk in order to discover and bring to light criminal activities like the ones described by the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News:

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"By intercepting the documents before they were sliced by the shredder, the investigators were able to uncover what they believed was evidence that branch employees had used scissors, tape and Wite-Out to create fake bank statements, inflated property appraisals and other phony paperwork. Inside the heaps of paper, for example, they found mock-ups that indicated to investigators that workers had, as a matter of routine, literally cut and pasted the address for one home onto an appraisal for a completely different piece of property."

When the Countrywide whistleblowers turned to federal prosecutors, however, they encountered a massive yawn. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the same man who bears responsibility for the Stevens, Siegelman, Alabama bingo, and Edwards fiascos, told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, "In our criminal justice system, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you intended to commit a fraud." But Breuer's claim that the evidence in the Countrywide case failed to constitute proof will not be convincing to anyone who has looked at the record. Rather, the case reflects a failure of political will at Justice to enforce the law -- and an infantile obsession with high-profile political gamesmanship.

The DOJ's political prosecutions demonstrate its exceptional vulnerability to political manipulation, its absence of professional independence, and its consistent failure to exhibit mature, detached judgment. The Edwards case perfectly encapsulates these qualities, and leads to an inescapable conclusion: that the upper echelon of the Justice Department, whether under Democratic or Republican administrations, is filled with political hacks eager to pad their re'sume's before launching their political careers.


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Scott Horton is a contributor to Harper's Magazine and writes No Comment for this website, www.harpers.org. A New York attorney known for his work in emerging markets and international law, especially human rights law and the law of armed conflict, (more...)

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