Edwards Case Shows How Complex Campaign Finance Law Can Be

A stronger case would have eliminated some vagaries to a complex set of campaign finance laws.

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Former Sen. John Edwards campaigning in Des Moines, Iowa during his 2008 presidential run.

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After a drawn-out trial and nine days of jury deliberations, John Edwards was acquitted on one charge and his case was ruled as a mistrial, but the campaign finance landscape is no clearer than it was before.

The jury found Edwards not guilty on count 3—that he broke campaign finance law in accepting $700,000 from a billionaire supporter in 2008.

[Read: Jurors in John Edwards' Case Reach Verdict]

Neither side denied Edwards took the money and used it to cover up an affair. But U.S. Attorney George Holding indicted Edwards last summer under the belief that doing so was a crime under one interpretation of campaign finance law.

The case turned on deceptively complex question: Were the secret payments made, with Edwards' knowledge, for the purpose of influencing his 2008 presidential campaign? If so, they were illegal campaign contributions. If not, they were personal gifts.

The prosecution argued that Edwards solicited the money to hide his mistress and illegitimate child in order to maintain his public image during the 2008 presidential campaign. The defense depicted Edwards' actions as morally, not legally, wrong. The money was personal, Edwards' lawyers argued, used to hide the affair from his cancer-stricken wife, not keep afloat a 2008 campaign which was effectively over.

Had Edwards been found guilty, the legal definition of a campaign contribution, now defined vaguely as money given with the intent to "influence an election," would have been made more clear. The campaign finance implications of that would have been vast, but it would have taken a stronger case, legal experts say.

"In terms of campaign finance, you have to have that smoking gun," says Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. "The prosecution was unable clearly to provide clear evidence, beyond the testimony of Mr. Young, that there was willful and knowing illegal activity by Mr. Edwards."

Given the current law and legal precedents, the prosecution's case was novel and the verdict a dodged bullet, says Allison Hayward, vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics.

"Had there been a guilty verdict, especially on count 3, you would've had a lot of confusion among the bar and other prosecutors," Hayward says. "That the court would instruct the jury that the donor's purpose was somehow what made this a camp contribution, not the person being charged, that was a bit scary."

[Read: Justice Dept. Unlikely to Retry Edwards]

Edwards' case was interpreted differently by legal experts on both sides: the judge, the prosecutors, and Edwards' team. But however campaign finance law is interpreted, prosecutors should build a strong case before bringing an indictment, says Rick Hasen, a campaign finance expert and professor at UC-Irvine.

"This was a weak case to begin with," says Hasen. "(The verdict) doesn't have broad implications for campaign finance other than it might make prosecutors worry."

In many campaign finance law prosecutions, those being indicted are motivated by alleged political motivations, Hasen says. In this case, Edwards' indictment was brought by a Bush-appointed attorney general, George Holding, who this month won a GOP primary for a Congressional seat in a district that includes the courthouse where Edwards was tried.

"Whether or not there's any truth to that in this case or others I don't know," Hasen says. "But given the nature of the campaigns, I think prosecutors have a motive to chase the big fish. The incentives for prosecuting a political are very high."

Edwards case made one thing clear for both sides: campaign finance law is complex and prosecuting it is not easy.

  • Read: What Everyone Can Learn From John Edwards
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  • Observers: Edwards Case Was Doomed From The Start
  • Seth Cline is a reporter for US News and World Report. You can contact him at scline@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.