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John Edwards and the invisible line separating the person from the candidate

June 3, 2011 | 11:03 am

Edwards Can a candidate raise money for a campaign and for some personal needs simultaneously, disclosing the former but hiding the latter? That's one of the questions raised by the indictment Friday  of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, whose secret affair with a videographer helped destroy his political career.

Edwards announced his second runfor the presidency in New Orleans on December 2006 and formally launched his campaign fundraising the following month. Beginning in June 2007, however, a federal grand jury has allegedthat Edwards began a second fundraising operation: collecting checks from a supporter to pay the living expenses of the mistress (Rielle Hunter, not named in the indictment) he had impregnated. A second supporter also contributed, the grand jury alleged, by picking up the tab for more than $180,000 in travel expenses incurred by the mistress and the Edwards aide who'd told reporters that he, not Edwards, was the father of the mistress' child. (That aide, also not named in the indictment, was Andrew Young.)

Defiant commentsby Edwards' lawyers suggest that the liberal former trial attorney and senator from North Carolina will test his ability to dazzle audiences on a jury of his peers instead of copping a plea. Their position is that none of the money in the second fundraising effort went through Edwards or the campaign, so it's not covered by disclosure requirements or contribution limits. In essence, they argued, the money was used to hide Hunter from Edwards' wife, not from voters.

I'm neither a lawyer nor an expert on election law, so I can't handicap Edwards' chances. Nor does anyone know what facts will come out in a trial. From a public policy standpoint, though, I'd hate to see the courts embrace the constrained view of campaign finance law that Edwards seems to be advancing.

Edwards' defense team seems to be arguing that funneling money to Hunter wasn't a campaign-related expense as defined by federal law. But once a person is a candidate, any money, goods or services contributed by others to support that person also supports that person's campaign for office. (N.b. -- That wouldn't apply to the wages earned by candidates for the work they continue to do between campaign stops.) Hiding a mistress is clearly an effort to buttress a candidacy. That should at least trigger a disclosure, either by the candidate or the committee acting independently on the candidate's behalf.

Perhaps Edwards will argue that the machinations by Young and other supporters amounted to an independent effort, not coordinated with his campaign.  If a jury agreed, that would put the responsibility for compliance on those supporters, not Edwards' campaign. It would be a stretch, though, to argue that people as close to Edwards as Young, the longtime staff member who collected some of the secret checks, were acting independently of the campaign. If that fits the technical definition of independence in federal campaign law, then there's something wrong with the definition.

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Michal Czerwonka / EPA

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