When John Edwards' legal saga concluded without a conviction, the fall from grace was complete. The casualty was not Edwards, however, but the reputation of a beleaguered group of government prosecutors who again failed in the public spotlight.
For the Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section, the Edwards verdict was the latest in a series of failed attempts to prosecute politicians charged with corruption. The once-esteemed section, created 30 years ago to combat corruption in politics, now struggles amid accusations of being politically motivated and "out-lawyered" in consecutive high profile cases.
"The Public Integrity Section was once considered the best-of-the-best, now they've lost their way and have no coherent philosophy," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of nonprofit watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "The decision to prosecute Edwards is incomprehensible, especially when you consider how hesitant they've been in the post-Stevens era."
Four years ago, the section charged former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, then the longest serving Senate Republican in history, with taking illegal gifts while in office. Stevens lost the case and re-election, but a $1 million inquiry into the case's handling later revealed the section's lawyers withheld some evidence and knowingly admitted false evidence that would have aided Stevens.
In the Edwards case, the section joined an indictment by U.S. Attorney George Holding, a Bush appointee and, like Edwards, a prominent attorney in North Carolina with political aspirations. Holding, who is now the GOP candidate for a U.S. House seat in the state, charged Edwards using a novel interpretation of campaign finance law, says Rick Hasen, a campaign finance expert and professor at UC-Irvine.
"This was a weak case to begin with," Hasen says. "I hope the Justice Department learns it shouldn't bring cases that are weak and could potentially end someone's political career without giving it some additional thoughts."
The Public Integrity Section's problems have not been limited to overreaching. In 2010, the section dropped cases against other prominent politicians, including former Nevada Sen. John Ensign, former House Majority leader Tom DeLay and Alaska Rep. Don Young, because, critics alleged, the section was hesitant after the public embarrassment of the botched Stevens case.
Earlier this year, the section also failed to convict a group of politicians, lobbyists, and an Alabama casino owner who had been charged with promising political contributions for favorable gambling legislation. The unit's section chief, William Welch, resigned from Justice Department soon after.
"The Justice Department's Public Integrity section has had its share of trouble, and I hope there will be some reconsideration on what kinds of cases they bring in the future," says Allison Hayward, vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics.
"Previously it would use (Federal Election Commission) interpretations and be careful in their decisions, but it now seems to think it has some independent authority. It's a terrible place to put lawyers in."
The string of mishaps has caused a negative feedback loop for the section, says Sloan.
"In legal circles in Washington, it has a seriously diminished reputation," she added. "It's harder for them to recruit now because of their bad reputation, so they have a lot of junior lawyers."
Its problems don't seem to have been malevolent, but a result of poor leadership and restricted powers stemming from unfavorable case law, Sloan says.
"They don't have a very good record and it's too bad," says Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center. "That's one place where you would hope you'd have the best and brightest. Their track record doesn't earn them that moniker."