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Ethics Group Head On Edwards Verdict


And for more reaction to the Edwards verdict, we turn now to Melanie Sloan. She's a former federal prosecutor, and now executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW. Melanie Sloan, welcome to the program.

MELANIE SLOAN: Nice to be here.

BLOCK: And what's interesting in your case is that your group typically goes after cases of government corruption and ethics violations. Here, you actually filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting John Edwards. You agreed with him that this case should've been thrown out. Why?

SLOAN: That's exactly right, and as did most campaign finance lawyers in Washington. You'd have gone far afield to try and find anybody who thought this was a good case. The fact of the matter is, this was a novel prosecution. There had never - it was literally unprecedented. Nobody had been prosecuted to anything remotely similar. And in the United States, we have a rule that you have to have fair notice of what's criminal conduct.

And I think it's interesting that it came out - during the trial we learned that the Federal Election Commission had considered whether these payments made to Rielle Hunter were in fact campaign contributions, and had decided they were not and did not need to be reported. And yet, despite the FEC finding that, the jury never heard that. The Justice Department decided to prosecute, which also goes against their general policy, which is not to prosecute if the FEC doesn't believe there's a violation.

BLOCK: Prosecutors, of course, in the case said that John Edwards was very well aware of the legal limit on campaign donations. They said it's a simple rule, it applies to every campaign. They called this a full rescue operation for a teetering campaign. Why are they wrong?

SLOAN: Well, the fact is, both Bunny Mallon and Fred Baron made legal contributions to the campaign. And Fred Baron, a very longtime friend of John Edwards, was happy to help him out. And, in fact, the likeliest story is that Mr. Edwards was trying to hide his affair from his dying, cancer-stricken wife. People who have affairs are generally trying to hide it. And if this would be a campaign contribution, a third party paying another third party paying some money that never goes through the campaign and is not for any other campaign purpose - you know, like yard signs or ads or any of the things we typically associate with a campaign - that means that anything a candidate ever gets while they're a candidate, anything that even mildly accrues to their benefit, would be a campaign contribution. And I think we are going to see a lot of confusion now about the law. What counts as a campaign contribution, what must be reported?

BLOCK: Melanie Sloan, you've called, in the past, John Edwards' behavior odious and despicable. I wonder whether this is a case that you really wanted to be advocating for.

SLOAN: No, not in any way. John Edwards is clearly a despicable person and behaved horribly. But that said, we don't put people in jail in America just because we hate them. And I felt like it was really wrong of the Department of Justice to go ahead and prosecute this man just because he had behaved so terribly. And I was shocked, in fact, as a former federal prosecutor, that they had taken this case this far. And I felt like it was the right thing to do. And I'm sorry that the Justice Department didn't also do the right thing and shut the door on this case a long time ago.

BLOCK: One last thing, Melanie, before we let you go. Some have maintained, on John Edwards' team, that this case was politically motivated. The indictment was brought by a Republican U.S. attorney, George Holding, who's now running for Congress in North Carolina. What do you think about that?

SLOAN: I think that seems quite likely, that it was, at least at the beginning, politically motivated. But then, high level Obama administration officials had to allow the case to go forward. But I think the fact is, they figured John Edwards had a lot of money, he could defend himself. And they didn't want to kill the case and have Republicans screaming they were protecting longtime Democrat John Edwards, when in fact, I think nobody dislikes John Edwards as much as Democrats. He would've done great damage to the Democratic Party. So, I think that nobody wanted to take a hit for John Edwards, take the bad press, and so they went a head and let it go, figuring that Edwards would have a great defense and he'd be able to do it. But I think that's really the wrong tact, and I think the Justice Department behaved in a way that we can all be disappointed by.

BLOCK: Melanie Sloan with the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics in Washington, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.