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John Edwards: Maybe A "Cheating Lowlife," But Not A Criminal

John Edwards certainly seems to be, as one major newspaper called him, a "cheating lowlife." With his wife of 30 years dying of cancer, he carried on an affair with a woman hired to film campaign documentaries, even, allegedly, having sex with her in his wife's bed. When his mistress became pregnant, Edwards convinced his closest aide (the married father of three) to claim paternity Then, he spent a million dollars given him by wealthy donors flying his aide and mistress on private jets to luxury resorts while he campaigned as a populist. At one point, the would-be leader of the free world cowered in a hotel bathroom when it appeared reporters would find him visiting his paramour and love child.

A cad, yes, but a criminal? Edwards is now on trial for violations of campaign finance laws, despite the fact that two former commissioners of the Federal Election Commission have been named as expert witnesses for the defense (to date, the government has succeeded in preventing their testimony). The government's theory, in a nutshell, is that because disclosure of the affair would "undermine Edwards' presentation of himself as a family man," the contributions used to hide his mistress advanced his candidacy. Thus, the government argues, they were "campaign contributions" that exceeded individual limits on such contributions. (One of the contributors, 99-year old "Bunny" Mellon, gave Edwards $900,000, far in excess of the $2300 individual limit). Under this theory, a supporter who had already donated the maximum and then gave a candidate a ride to a campaign event would break the law by contributing gas. As one campaign finance attorney put it, "Suppose that your wife gives you a nice shirt for Christmas. Is that a campaign contribution by the candidate's wife that counts towards her $2,500 per election limit? No."

The press uncovered John Edwards' boorish behavior, and his political career was destroyed. That may not be all he deserved, but it is what our political system can give him. Not all bad behavior, even by politicians, is criminal.



Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.