Prosecutors also have stake in Edwards’ trial verdict

Fed public-integrity unit rebuilt after ethics issues in Stevens trial

ablythe@newsobserver.com May 22, 2012 

— John Edwards might be the one with the most to win or lose with the jury deliberating his fate, but the U.S. Department of Justice has a lot riding on his case, too.

When the eight men and four women return to the federal courthouse in downtown Greensboro Tuesday morning, they will begin their third day of deliberations in a case that also has put the Justice Department’s small public-integrity section under scrutiny.

Edwards’ trial came almost four years after the unit’s federal prosecutors bungled a 2008 corruption case against Ted Stevens, then a U.S. senator from Alaska accused of failing to properly report more than $250,000 in gifts.

Stevens, who died in a 2010 plane crash, was convicted, but the verdict was appealed and later vacated after it was revealed prosecutors and FBI agents had conspired to conceal and withhold evidence from the defense.

An investigation was launched into the integrity and professional practices of prosecutors in the public-integrity division. A scathing report from that investigation was released earlier this year, showing that prosecutors had “repeatedly ignored the law” and the ethical standards of their profession.

The public integrity section was set up to root out corruption through the prosecution of elected and appointed public officials at all levels of government.

The section has exclusive jurisdiction over allegations of criminal misconduct on the part of federal judges and also supervises the nationwide investigation and prosecution of election crimes.

New chief for prosecutors’ unit

Since the Stevens case, the unit has a new chief, former New York-based federal prosecutor Jack Smith. The Justice Department also has ordered training to make sure prosecutors disclose key evidence to defense attorneys.

Attorneys who have attended Edwards’ trial have commented throughout that the prosecution as well as the defense has a lot at stake in the case.

Edwards, a former two-time Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. senator who branched into politics after achieving success as a trial lawyer, was indicted last June on six counts related to violations of campaign-finance laws.

The violations allegedly occurred during Edwards’ campaign for the 2008 nomination, when two wealthy Edwards’ supporters gave more than $900,000 used to help hide Edwards’ extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter and her pregnancy.

Each of the six counts Edwards faces carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

However, Kieran Shanahan, a former federal prosecutor from Raleigh who sat through the trial, said Edwards – if convicted and unable to successfully appeal – would likely receive a concurrent sentence and serve no more than five years.

Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and co-author of “The Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption,” said Monday that a not-guilty verdict would be “a black eye” for the justice department.

“It would call into question their decision even to pursue the case,” Henning added.

But he added that he had seen no surprises from the prosecution, and that ultimately the questions that arise from the trial might be those raised by rulings made outside the jury’s presence by Judge Catherine Eagles, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2010 by President Barack Obama.

Eagles prohibited a former Federal Election Commission chairman from offering his opinion to the jury on whether the money from billionaires Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron would typically be classified as a campaign contribution or gift.

Scott Thomas, who had more than 30 years with the FEC, testified while the jury was out of the courtroom that he thought the money that went from Mellon and Baron to other people was used for personal expenses that did not need to be publicly reported or subject to campaign limits.

The jury, during its first two days of deliberations, has asked for many exhibits related to testimony about the $925,000 in checks issued by Mellon in 2007 and 2008.

Though only the 12 people on the jury know what is being discussed behind closed doors, the first two counts on the jury verdict sheet are related to the Mellon money.

Toward the end of the trial, the jurors sounded as if they were a collegial group, laughing and talking as they walked into and out of the jury box.

On Monday, the second day of deliberations, the jurors were quieter and somber-looking, barely looking at prosecutors or Edwards as they waited for the judge to answer questions or release them for lunch or the evening break.

As many await the verdict inside the federal courthouse in downtown Greensboro, national political organizations are seeking answers and raising questions outside the tense atmosphere.

Juror instructions questioned

On Monday, the Center for Competitive Politics, a conservative group that promotes the deregulation of U.S. elections, harshly criticized the final juror instructions issued last week in the trial, particularly sections about the definition of “influencing an election.”

“If Edwards goes to prison, we will have an Alice in Wonderland world where conduct that would not be punished by a civil fine can result in jail time,” Allison Hayward, vice president for policy of CCP, said in a prepared statement.

The organization’s spokeswoman pointed to a U.S. Supreme Court case decided in 1976, the landmark Buckley v. Valeo case, which states that under “due process” a person of ordinary intelligence must understand that his actions could be considered illegal.

“There is no legislative history to guide us in determining the scope of the critical phrase ‘for the purpose of … influencing,’ ” Hayward further stated.

“The Supreme Court said the phrase ‘for the purpose of influencing’ is so vague and broad that it cannot be constitutionally applied to define campaign spending.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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