The botched campaign finance case against John Edwards was a blow for the government in a high-profile, aggressive prosecution, forcing a reassessment of the merits of the charges as the government decides whether a second trial is justified.
A jury Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., federal district court found Edwards, a former Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator from North Carolina, not guilty on one of six counts rooted in a scheme to violate federal campaign finance laws. Edwards was indicted last summer.
Shortly after the mistrial, Edwards declared outside the courthouse that he did not break campaign finance laws. “While I didn't do anything I thought was illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong,” he said. “There is no one else responsible for my sins.”
A DOJ spokeswoman, Alisa Finelli, declined to comment on the Edwards case.
At the time Edwards was charged, Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the head of the criminal division, said that “we will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws.”
For the government, the question now is whether a second trial will produce a different outcome.
Earlier this year, Breuer was involved in the decision to abandon the prosecution of 22 executives and employees in the arms and law enforcement equipment industry in a high-profile foreign bribery case.
In that case, prosecutors said they could not justify, after two mistrials involving separate groups of defendants, investing more time and money in the novel case.
Political law and white-collar defense lawyers reacted sharply to the collapse of the Edwards case this afternoon, saying they would be surprised if the government seeks a retrial.
W. Neil Eggleston, a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, said charges against Edwards should never have been brought in the first instance.
“I think that the law is not at all clear, at least to me, that these contributions were campaign contributions as opposed to money to hide an extramarital affair,” Eggleston said. “These didn’t fit in the statute.”
That the Federal Election Commission did not bring an administrative case against Edwards should have given federal investigators and prosecutors some pause, said Miller & Chevalier partner Barry Pollack.
The Edwards case, Pollack said, was a difficult prosecution that featured solid lawyering on both sides of the courtroom.
“I think they were pushing the envelope in pursuing this as a criminal case,” he said. “When you do that, you’re going to lose more often. I think it says more about the choice to pursue this case than it does about the quality of the lawyers involved.”
Pollack called the Edwards prosecution a “one-off” case that doesn’t necessarily say anything larger about enforcement policies and strategies.
The Edwards jury deliberated for nine days, indicating a lengthy examination of the record, said Douglas McNabb, a criminal defense lawyer in Washington. McNabb said it would be “unfair” for the government to bring a second case given the time the jurors spent assessing the case.
Venable partner Glenn Ivey said the mistrial will only strengthen calls for the government not to dedicate additional resources on a second trial.
“Unless the jurors come out and give a dramatically different view of their deliberations, not guilty on one count and hanging on the rest looks like a strong message to not bring this case again,” Ivey said.
The line between ethics and campaign finance reporting “was about to become a criminal trip wire if this had resulted in a conviction.”
Ivey credited Edwards defense attorney Abbe Lowell, head of the white-collar defense, regulatory investigations and litigation group at Chadbourne & Parke, with the successful cross-examinination of the government’s witnesses, particularly former aide Andrew Young.
Lowell grilled Young over his credibility. “He had more baggage than Southwest Airlines,” Ivey said.
With the Edwards mistrial, the focus on the perjury prosecution of Roger Clemens in Washington could become all the more intense. The Clemens trial is already in its seventh week, and the case is expected to last another week or two.
Prosecutors tripped up last year during the first trial, presenting evidence that was off-limits, but the government won a second chance to present the case to jurors.
Clemens’s chief lawyer, Rusty Hardin Jr. of Houston, has long questioned whether the case was an appropriate use of prosecutorial resources. Clemens, Hardin said at trial, did not lie when he denied using performance enhancing drugs.
Twelve residents of Washington, like their peers in Greensboro in the Edwards case, will have the final say.
Staff writers Amanda Bronstad, Matthew Huisman, Todd Ruger, Mike Scarcella and Zoe Tillman contributed to this report.