John Edwards has accused the Republican former U.S. Attorney in Raleigh of trying to launch his own political career by pursuing a “vindictive” and politically motivated prosecution of him.
Among a flurry of motions filed Tuesday, the former senator and Democratic presidential candidate asked a federal judge in North Carolina to dismiss criminal charges against him based on “abuse of prosecutorial discretion” by George E.B. Holding, the former U.S. Attorney who is now running for a congressional seat from North Carolina. Edwards is charged with conspiring to violate election law during his 2008 campaign for president by allowing political supporters to funnel money to his mistress, with whom he had a child.
“This case is about politics,” Edwards argued in a filing yesterday with the Middle District of North Carolina federal court. “Politics can be a rough-and-tumble business where partisan interests collide, but that is not supposed to be true of the criminal justice system.”
Among the evidence of political motivation, Edwards’ lawyers say: prosecutors asked irrelevant questions of grand jurors designed to poison Edwards in their minds, and an unexplained maneuver that gave Holding authority to investigate Edwards even though another U.S. Attorney had jurisdiction.
Edwards also submitted affidavits from former Federal Election Commission members who said they do not believe Edwards violated any campaign laws related to his dealings with his mistress.
In the court of public opinion, it could be hard for Edwards to find sympathy for his argument that he is the victim of a partisan prosecutor. The revelation that Edwards had fathered a child in an extramarital affair while his wife, Elizabeth, was battling the breast cancer from which she eventually died, destroyed his reputation and political career.
Nonetheless, Edwards’ lawyers – including prominent criminal defense attorney Abbe Lowell — have sought to draw an arc from the 2006 U.S. Attorneys firing scandal and uproar over George W. Bush-era politicization of the Justice Department to Holding’s pursuit of Edwards.
As Main Justice previously reported, Holding emerged from the conservative political network surrounding the late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who’d been a bitter enemy of Edwards. Holding had been a political donor to North Carolina Republicans, including Sen. Lauch Faircloth, whom Edwards defeated in 1998 to win his Senate seat.
In the 2006 U.S. Attorney firings scandal, evidence emerged that some prosecutors were dismissed by the George W. Bush administration because they hadn’t pursued voter fraud or corruption cases against Democrats. A subsequent investigation by the House Judiciary Committee found that 77 percent of public corruption cases pursued by Bush-era U.S. Attorneys were against Democrats.
Holding was appointed U.S. Attorney by Bush in 2006. On the eve of state and federal elections in the fall of 2010, Holding authorized subpoenas to be issued against the campaign of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Edwards filing notes. The filing suggests that the “fallout of the investigation of Governor Perdue’s campaign” helped Republicans win control of the North Carolina General Assembly for the first time in 100 years.
Using their new majority, Republicans then redrew the boundaries of North Carolina’s 13th congressional district to “tilt it heavily Republican,” the filing says. Then, after Holding received huge publicity for the indictment against Edwards, he resigned and a month later announced his candidacy for the redrawn 13th congressional district seat. The “announcement articles highlighted the political cases he had brought,” the Edwards filing says.
Holding could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But in a statement to Main Justice in June, he said: “When I became U.S. Attorney, I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. No political considerations have entered into any decisions of our office during my tenure.”
The Edwards investigation was begun in 2008, while Bush was still president. It isn’t clear how Holding got in charge of the probe, the Edwards filing says, since the people involved all lived in the Middle District of North Carolina, not Holding’s Eastern District. The alleged crimes also occurred either in the Middle District or outside the state of North Carolina.
But the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District at the time was Anna Mills Waggoner, who had narrowly avoided getting fired by the Bush administration in the 2006 U.S. Attorney purge. ”It certainly appears the Bush Justice Department was looking for a way to get this case to Mr. Holding and not the U.S. Attorney with jurisdiction over the matter,” the Edwards filing says.
Spokesmen for the Eastern and Middle District of North Carolina U.S. Attorney offices had no comment.
A preliminary inquiry memo in August 2008 by Craig Donsanto of the Public Integrity Section at Justice Department headquarters in Washington concluded that a campaign law may have been violated if Edwards’s friend and supporter Fred Baron, a Dallas trial lawyer, had been reimbursed by the campaign for any expenses he had covered for Rielle Hunter, Edwards’s mistress.
But Holding’s preliminary investigation found no evidence that Baron had been reimbursed by the campaign for money he’d paid on Hunter’s behalf, the Edwards filing said. “If this were a normal case, the investigation would have ended,” the filing said. Instead, Holding pursued what Edwards’s lawyers called a “novel intepretation of what constitutes a campaign contribution.”
Holding was able to stay on the job even after Democrat Barack Obama was elected president because Democrats were afraid of being accused of trying to squelch the Edwards probe, Main Justice has previously reported. North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, took the unusual step of asking the White House to leave Holding in place and delay action on her own U.S. Attorney candidate, so that Holding could finish his probe.
Holding assigned some 50 federal agents who conducted more than 125 interviews over a three-year investigation, Edwards’ filing says.
When a grand jury was convened, “Prosecutors apparently asked witnesses … a broad range of questions that had nothing to do with alleged campaign finance violations by Mr. Edwards,” the filing says. “Witnesses report that they were asked whether Mr. Edwards or his law firm had been sued for sexual harassment; whether they were surprised by the size of Mr. Edwards’s home; and whether the house had a basketball court.”
Then, as the grand jury prepared to indict Edwards earlier this year, “Mr. Holding and all of the prosecutors he now was leading undoubtedly were aware that none of the targets of his investigation resided in the Eastern District,” where Holding had jurisdiction, the filing says. “So, literally, no more than a day or two before Mr. Edwards was indicted, the prosecutors convened a second grand jury in the Middle District,” based in Greensboro.
This hastily convened second grand jury indicted Edwards on June 3, 2011.
Samuel Knight contributed to this report.