The North Carolina U.S. Attorney behind the campaign finance indictment of John Edwards has a history of financial contributions and support for Edwards’s political opponents, according to a Main Justice review.
Republican George E.B. Holding, 43, was appointed by President George W. Bush as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 2006 under a deal cut with Holding’s political patron, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), before Helms retired from the Senate in 2003.
Helms, who died in 2008, was a conservative firebrand who often clashed with the liberal Edwards, a one-term Democratic senator from North Carolina who later ran for president and vice president.
In a statement to Main Justice, Holding said politics has never played into his office’s probe.
“When I became U.S. Attorney, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” he said in the statement. “No political considerations have entered into any decisions of our office during my tenure.”
Holding has a resume packed with high-profile corruption convictions of political figures in both parties. Former North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, former state Democratic House Speaker Jim B. Black and former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance were among the North Carolina Democrats he’s prosecuted. He also prosecuted Republicans, including state Rep. Michael Paul Decker, Sr. and former U.S. Attorney Sam Currin.
“That’s been his claim to fame: prosecuting political corruption,” said Rich Henderson, managing editor at the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina nonprofit group that focuses on government research and journalism.
But for Holding, the case against Edwards also caps a history of bad blood between the prosecutor’s conservative political network and Edwards and other Democrats.
That history dates back nearly a decade before Holding joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh. In 1991, Helms nominated United States District Judge Terrence Boyle – a former legislative aide to Helms who later employed Holding as a law clerk – for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Senate Democrats killed the nomination.
In response, Helms blocked all of President Bill Clinton’s judicial nominations from North Carolina for the next eight years, including nominations proposed by Edwards after he took office in 1999.
Then when Edwards backed the nomination of North Carolina state appeals court judge James A. Wynn to the 4th Circuit, Helms helped ensure it failed in the Senate.
Acting in kind, Edwards helped block the re-nomination of Judge Boyle in 2001, and Senate Democrats blocked him again in 2005.
“Edwards and Helms played the alternating role of being the person blocking the nominee,” said Mitch Kokai, director of communications at the John Locke Foundation. “Helms blocked all the Democrats and Edwards blocked all the Republicans.”
President Obama re-nominated Wynn in November 2009, and the Democratic-controlled Senate confirmed the nomination. Republicans thus saw Edwards’s candidate finally ascend to the bitterly fought seat after more than 20 years of partisan tit-for-tat.
Holding, who worked as a law clerk for Boyle from 1996 to 1997 and as a legislative counsel to Helms from 2000 to 2001, has also been a political donor to Republicans.
According to the Federal Election Commission, he donated $750 to Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, who lost his Senate seat to Edwards in the 1998 election. From 2002 to 2004, he gave $1,000 to a committee of former Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole’s, $5,000 to the Republican political action committee Leadership Circle PAC also associated with Dole, and $3,000 to an organization supporting Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who succeeded Edwards in 2004.
“Certainly, one could make an argument that Holding’s conservative, Republican background is a factor” in his dogged pursuit of Edwards, said former justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina Robert Orr, who made a gubernatorial run as a Republican in 2008.
Orr said the fact that Holding remained on as U.S. Attorney even after President Barack Obama nominated Thomas Gray Walker in 2009 to replace him suggests that the administration isn’t concerned about any potential bias on Holding’s part in the Edwards investigation. “But I think that if the powers that be thought it made a difference, he would be long gone,” Orr said of the U.S. Attorney.
The truth is more nuanced. Obama has often preferred to leave Republican U.S. Attorneys in place or nominate no one at all in districts where there is any whiff of controversy. North Carolina’s GOP senator Burr had opposed replacing Holding while his Edwards probe was ongoing. And Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan (N.C.), with an eye toward an often conservative leaning electorate, joined Burr in urging the White House to leave Holding in place, even though she had recommended Walker to the White House.
After Edwards’ indictment last week, Hagan said in a statement that she would advance Walker through the Senate Judiciary Committee to “expedite his nomination to be the next U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director at the Washington-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, said the Justice Department may have chosen to let Holding stay on the Edwards probe in order to avoid the appearance that a Democratic administration was hijacking the investigation.
“It would have allowed Republicans to scream cover up … that’s how they get media attention,” she said. “I don’t think the Obama administration wanted that, but I don’t think they’ll say so.”
For more than two years, Holding’s office investigated money given to Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, and an aide, Andrew Young, in an alleged attempt to cover up Edwards’s extramarital affair, which produced a child. The child was born while Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth, was struggling with the breast cancer from which she later died.
The Raleigh News and Observer reported that the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, based in Washington, took over the investigation in January. Justice Department spokeswoman Laura Sweeney declined to comment on the timing of Public Integrity’s involvement.
Sloan argued the Public Integrity Section’s involvement makes more political than legal sense. Proving that money contributed to Edwards’ mistress by Bunny Mellon and Fred Baron – who both have personal ties to Edwards – qualifies as a campaign contribution under the law will be difficult, she said. Instead, Sloan said she believes the administration decided there was no political downside to embracing an investigation of as reviled a figure as Edwards.
“It’s hard for me to imagine any Democrat is going to stand up for John Edwards,” she said.