RALEIGH, N.C. – Federal prosecutors dropped all charges Wednesday against John Edwards, triggering criticism that the year-long prosecution of the former presidential candidate was a waste of time and taxpayer money.
After a six-week trial in North Carolina, jurors acquitted Edwards May 31 on one count of accepting illegal campaign contributions and deadlocked on five other felony counts. The judge declared a mistrial.
The U.S. Justice Department said in a court order that it will not seek to retry Edwards on the five unresolved counts.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer, who oversees the agency’s criminal division, said prosecutors knew the case, like all campaign finance cases, would be challenging. But he said it is “our duty to bring hard cases” when warranted.
Prosecutors accused Edwards, who turned 59 this week, of masterminding a scheme to use about $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy political donors to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. He would have faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.
At trial, the case against Edwards rested largely on the testimony of his former right-hand man, Andrew Young, who initially claimed paternity of his boss’ baby and deposited most of the money at issue in the case into his family’s personal accounts. But upon cross examination, Edwards’ lawyers used inconsistencies from Young’s past statements to undermine his credibility and used bank records to show the aide and his wife siphoned off much of the money to help build their $1.6 million dream home.
Several jurors said a clear majority within the group after deliberating nine days wanted to acquit Edwards on all charges.
Prosecutors charged ahead despite a decision by the Federal Election Commission not to pursue a civil case against Edwards. Several campaign finance experts said that even if Edwards had known about the money flowing to his mistress, he wasn’t violating the law.
Melanie Sloan, the executive director for the campaign watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the ex-North Carolina senator never should have been charged.
“It was a colossal waste of time and taxpayer money,” Sloan said. “Now maybe the Justice Department can get back to prosecuting people who actually broke the law.”
A former trial lawyer, Edwards elected not to testify. His mistress, Rielle Hunter, also didn’t take the stand.
Edwards’ lawyers – Abbe Lowell, Allison Van Laningham and Alan W. Duncan – said in a joint statement that they are pleased with the government’s decision not to seek a second trial that they believe would have had the same outcome.
“While John has repeatedly admitted to his sins, he has also consistently asserted, as we demonstrated at the trial, that he did not violate any campaign law nor even imagined that any campaign laws could apply,” they said.