No Comment — May 1, 2012, 10:04 am

Bread, Circuses, and the Edwards Prosecution

Last week, in a courtroom in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Justice Department launched its latest political charade in the guise of a public-integrity prosecution. Former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, a man with whom President Obama once broached the possibility of an appointment as attorney general, faces charges that he spent nearly $1 million in campaign donations to cover up an embarrassing sexual liaison. This, prosecutors insist, was a federal crime, for which Edwards could spend as many as thirty years in prison and face a $1.5 million fine.

Meanwhile, on televisions across the state, a well-financed G.O.P. advertising campaign, apparently timed to coincide with the trial, is launching broadsides against sexual indiscretions and moral laxity by leading figures in the North Carolina Democratic Party. And in North Carolina’s thirteenth congressional district, which sweeps in a crescent north and west from Raleigh, George Holding is seeking to reclaim the district for the G.O.P. Holding is both a dedicated Republican activist and the Bush-era U.S. attorney who launched a criminal probe targeting Edwards, the former darling of North Carolina Democrats. As a U.S. attorney, Holding championed the idea of charging Edwards with election-finance crimes. Election-law experts around the country view Holding’s theories as borderline crackpot, but the Holder Justice Department, fearing that it would be accused of partisanship, allowed Holding to stay on and gave him free rein to pursue the case, even as his other objectives—tilting the political balance in the state toward the G.O.P. and winning a seat in Congress for himself—were open secrets.

The Edwards prosecutors may well win their case, but not because any crime was involved. Rather, they’re likely to win because John Edwards is one of the most reviled politicians in the United States, and so a choice target. No doubt his affair, undertaken while his heroic wife was dying of cancer, makes him the definition of a cad, but while he may be morally unsuited for high office, that is not the question in this trial. If Edwards can be imprisoned for using campaign funds to try to cover up his flaws, then few politicians could fairly escape prison. The Justice Department appears instead to be engaged in statutory vandalism, and it is awarding itself exceptional power to intrude into the electoral process—a power that is ripe for abuse, as the Edwards case demonstrates.

The DOJ’s public-integrity prosecutions have careened in recent years from one humiliation to the next, with little thought for the damage the department is doing to the law or to its own reputation. First came the prosecutions of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Alabama Governor Don Siegelman, both cases in which the department secured convictions through false evidence, as prosecutors suppressed exculpatory materials that established the innocence of the defendants. Then came the $40 million Alabama bingo prosecution, touted by Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer as a demonstration of the department’s commitment to stopping bribery in the legislative process. That case ended with acquittals across the board, after the evidence demonstrated not corruption, but the duping of the DOJ by political hacks with racist motives—as the judge himself pointed out.

After these serial calamities, public-integrity prosecutors are now sallying forth with the Edwards trial, providing fodder for the National Enquirer and Entertainment Tonight while provoking disgust from commentators across the political spectrum who are seriously concerned about political ethics and campaign finance regulation. As the Justice Department has pursued these cases, draining the public coffer and trust, it has failed to prosecute other, more important crimes. The financial collapse that occurred in the fourth quarter of 2008 was caused by some of the most massive fraud and most spectacular failure of regulatory oversight in the nation’s history. In large measure, this failure belonged to the DOJ’s Criminal Division, which is ultimately responsible for oversight and enforcement. Four years after the crisis, the department maintains its posture of somnolence in the face of systemic, widely documented fraud.

An excellent example comes in the case of Countrywide Financial Corp, which saw former employees like Eileen Foster, the recipient of this year’s Ridenhour Prize for Truth-telling, expose themselves to enormous risk in order to discover and bring to light criminal activities like the ones described by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News:

By intercepting the documents before they were sliced by the shredder, the investigators were able to uncover what they believed was evidence that branch employees had used scissors, tape and Wite-Out to create fake bank statements, inflated property appraisals and other phony paperwork. Inside the heaps of paper, for example, they found mock-ups that indicated to investigators that workers had, as a matter of routine, literally cut and pasted the address for one home onto an appraisal for a completely different piece of property.

When the Countrywide whistleblowers turned to federal prosecutors, however, they encountered a massive yawn. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, the same man who bears responsibility for the Stevens, Siegelman, Alabama bingo, and Edwards fiascos, told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes, “In our criminal justice system, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you intended to commit a fraud.” But Breuer’s claim that the evidence in the Countrywide case failed to constitute proof will not be convincing to anyone who has looked at the record. Rather, the case reflects a failure of political will at Justice to enforce the law—and an infantile obsession with high-profile political gamesmanship.

The DOJ’s political prosecutions demonstrate its exceptional vulnerability to political manipulation, its absence of professional independence, and its consistent failure to exhibit mature, detached judgment. The Edwards case perfectly encapsulates these qualities, and leads to an inescapable conclusion: that the upper echelon of the Justice Department, whether under Democratic or Republican administrations, is filled with political hacks eager to pad their résumés before launching their political careers.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gangs of Karachi

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today