When it was over, the experts on campaign finance law were about as divided as the jury that found John Edwards not guilty on one count of illegal campaign contributions and could come to no unanimous decision on five others.
Those experts, interviewed by The News & Observer, seemed unsure of what if any impact the Edwards case would have on prompting change in the laws that govern the financing of campaigns or in how alleged violators of the law would be prosecuted.
The basic defense argument was that the money provided for Edwards benefit by two wealthy friends, more than $900,000, never went in a campaign account and bought no ads, no yard signs and no airplane rides. It went (after a certain amount of skimming) for the care and feeding of Rielle Hunter, the pregnant mistress who brought Edwards down, so she could be hidden from his wife, the now-deceased Elizabeth Edwards.
How could it then be considered illegal campaign money? In the case of a large gift from heiress Rachel Bunny Mellon, the jury agreed that it could not.
The main argument that the money was connected to the campaign was that without it, the country might have discovered Hunter and Edwards campaign would have ended in disgrace. Thus, it was campaign money. Some jurors said afterward they thought Edwards was guilty in some respects but that the government had not proved its case.
The prosecution of Edwards, by all accounts, rested on a novel interpretation of what a campaign contribution could consist of. There was no precedent from the Federal Elections Commission, which signed off on his campaign reports after the indictment was issued.
The FEC, however, has been in a state of partisan deadlock that has made it increasingly ineffective. Whats more, court decisions have opened the way for large amounts of money to be donated in candidates behalf, beyond the normal contribution limits, so long as it is not spent in coordination with the candidates own campaign.
These developments suggest that all in all, campaign finance law is in a state of flux, ready to be exploited by anyone with the nerve and ingenuity to do it.
It could also be said that any candidate who believes he can get away with the types of personal indiscretions Edwards exhibited is not smart enough to be class president at the kennel. So perhaps such people will not bother to run (no loss) or those who do run will have their temptations tempered by the infamy now permanently attached to John Edwards.
As for prosecutors, those who are supposed to watch for violations and pursue those who commit them, theyll likely take a pause before going after a candidate or former candidate whose alleged misuse of campaign money hinges mainly on personal misbehavior. But if the line between personal gifts from friends that help a candidate and out-and-out campaign contributions can be clarified, that would be worthwhile.
Beyond the legalities, when it comes to the financing of a campaign, either through direct contributions or gifts that indirectly help the effort stay afloat, an individual candidate should be responsible for knowing right from wrong. He or she should hold that campaign to a high standard not only of disclosure, but of good sense with regard to whats proper and what might be a conflict of interest. Law cannot cure the flaws in human beings, or instill in them the best of qualities.