The Edwards Cover Charge

A federal grand jury has convened in North Carolina to go through the campaign finances of former presidential and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, in an effort to determine whether hush money paid to keep his mistress quiet should be counted as illegal campaign contributions.

That’s the nastiest sentence I’ve written all day.  My computer says it wants to go in the shower and stand under scalding-hot water until it feels clean again.

Essentially, the case revolves around a network of tax-exempt advocacy groups, created to hide the exact nature of political expenditures.  Among these expenditures was a pile of money paid to Edwards campaign aide Andrew Young, who was pretending to have impregnated Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter.  Young later abandoned this pretense with a tell-all book about Edwards.

The Associated Press quotes Notre Dame law professor Lloyd Mayer: “The spirit of the law is being violated here.  You shouldn’t be able to hide what you’re spending money on.  But is the letter of the law being violated, or did they find a cute loophole?”

It seems as if our elaborate campaign finance laws have succeeded in creating a climate of complete opacity.  It makes sense to design equally elaborate shell corporations and play quick-change games with millions of dollars, in order to stymie a system that cannot easily decide whether hiding hush-money payments to a presidential candidate’s mistress is an offense.

Edwards violated the “spirit” of the law… and the more letters a law has, the more ephemeral its spirit becomes.  Voters would have recoiled in disgust from the way he treated his cancer-stricken wife, and carried on with a mistress.  Campaign laws that make it easier to conceal such behavior, or avoid penalties for deception, are contrary to the public interest.  Just imagine where we’d be today if Edwards had gotten to the White House before the truth came out, and his name became something decent people spit on the floor in disgust.

We don’t need a tortured network of laws understood by few politicians, and fewer voters, governing the way a campaign raises and spends each nickel.  The candidates who make a sincere attempt to play by the rules are the only ones who ever seem to be snared by them. 

We need to know exactly who bankrolls candidates, and what they do with the money.  The consequences for violating those rules must be devastating to the candidates, not cutouts and fall guys.  The American public desperately needed to know what John Edwards was doing with his mistress, and what steps he took to cover it up, back in 2004 and 2008.  A campaign finance system that is still chewing on these issues in 2011 is not adequately serving us.  We’re very fortunate that voters soured on Edwards before he showed them what a truly wretched creature he is.