John Edwards, campaign reformer

The smart thinking among savvy election lawyers and political insiders is that federal prosecutors will have a hard time proving that John Edwards broke campaign finance laws when he ran for president in 2008. Edwards has pleaded not guilty. Election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder captured this view when he said: “With the government having to prove that Edwards knew the intricacies of the campaign finance law and intentionally broke it, the government has a very tough road in this trial. He may not be a sympathetic figure, but that doesn’t mean he should go to prison for trying to hide his affair.”

Yes, the case has thorns. The star witness, former Edwards campaign aide Andrew Young, is a known liar who falsely claimed paternity of a child carried by Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, during the 2008 election. (Edwards was desperate to hide the affair while his wife, Elizabeth, who died in 2010, was battling cancer.) Two fat cats provided $925,000 to support and hide Hunter in pricey resorts while Edwards stumped for the White House; the guy who was in charge of Edwards’ fundraising, Fred Baron, is dead, while heiress Bunny Mellon is 101.

“The government has to prove that these people were giving (Edwards) money directly for the purposes of the campaign and that he knew that this way of helping him was a violation of the campaign finance law,” Goldfeder explained — as if that task were herculean.

Anyone who works in politics knows that candidates for federal office cannot accept donations above a legal limit; in 2008, the maximum contribution was $2,300 per election. Campaigns cannot accept free travel or other in-kind contributions over that limit. Edwards is an attorney who served as John Kerry’s 2004 running mate. As a senator, he was a proud supporter of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance measure. The notion that he was unaware of campaign finance law is risible.

Mellon was an Edwards donor. Baron was the head money guy. Young worked for the campaign. (The campaign even paid Hunter to make campaign videos.) After the National Enquirer reported on Hunter’s pregnancy, Young lied and said he was the father; Young and his much-suffering wife and children traveled with Hunter to keep Edwards’ candidacy alive.

Even after Edwards suspended his campaign, he lobbied to become Barack Obama’s running mate or — this is scary — attorney general.

Edwards is not a serial killer. I don’t want to see him sentenced to 30 years — the maximum if he’s convicted on all six felony counts. But Edwards reportedly turned down a plea deal that would have let him walk after six months in prison and spared his two youngest children the long-term absence of their surviving parent. He made a choice.

Quoth Edwards: “I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.”

To his credit, Obama never warmed to Edwards. To think, if Edwards had become attorney general, it would be his job to enforce tome-sized regulations that challenge skilled corporate attorneys. Now he has the nerve to argue that this $2,300 contribution limit was just too arcane for him to understand.

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is

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