As a former state senator who served prison time for lying about a campaign finance violation involving approximately $10,000, I unfortunately have a unique perspective on the imbroglio surrounding former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C. -- a case in which campaign finance law, selective prosecution, and budget priorities in a time of scarcity happen to intersect.
The media attention surrounding my own guilty plea, resignation and prison sentence was extremely painful. Yet it was nothing compared with the widespread ridicule Edwards has received. His public image is ruined, and he faces a real possibility of prison. Even so, prison is not an appropriate punishment for someone who conceals an affair.
Edwards is now being prosecuted in federal court because one of his campaign backers pitched in to support his mistress and their love child, at a time when the public was unaware he had either. To the layman's eye, such payments may not look like campaign contributions at all, let alone illegal ones. But according to prosecutors, they helped Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign by concealing his infidelity and preserving his public image as a devoted family man.
The problem with the Justice Department's logic here is that it proves too much. It would criminalize many, many innocent acts by candidates whose greatest fault is their inexperience. Candidates unintentionally break campaign finance laws with some frequency, and there is very little effort invested in helping them understand the arcane rules of the game. Political neophytes, who know little or nothing about the law's intricacies, could easily face felony charges and prison time at the hands of ambitious prosecutors for something as small as a free haircut from a supportive barber.
Congress does not provide for candidate ethics training, and the overworked Federal Election Commission barely has time to deal with the deluge of complaints it receives, let alone offer preventive guidance. And so the government's incentive structure is heavily skewed toward the back end: extreme jeopardy for those who dare to run, and promotions and prestige for law enforcement personnel who catch the biggest fish, no matter how little their crime harms society.
The public correctly associates ambition and power-seeking with politicians. But too often, investigators act from similar motives. As in the Edwards case, law enforcement seeks to justify long, expensive investigations into high-profile targets by stretching the law to win convictions and mount the biggest scalps on their walls. George Holding, the U.S. attorney who prosecuted Edwards, received his reward this week when he won a congressional primary in a safe Republican district in North Carolina. Sometimes, the benefits are less tangible. The former head of the St. Louis FBI once said of his job: "I love the chase. [It] was fantastic. It was me against them. And the smarter they were, the richer they were, the more I enjoyed catching them."
But justice isn't about adrenaline rushes or personal advancement. It is about the common good. If the central goal of prosecuting "corrupt" public figures is to remove them from public life, then the Edwards prosecution is a clear case of overkill. He is now a walking punch line, unfit to run for dog catcher. It does not make sense for prosecutors to spend time and money targeting him with questionable legal theories.
As a taxpayer, I am also not interested in paying to house, feed, and clothe multimillionaire lawyer John Edwards for the next several years in prison while his abilities go to waste. If he must repay a debt to society, I'd rather he spend the next decade working pro bono cases for the downtrodden -- helping people with foreclosed homes or children who have been crippled by defective products. Instead of prison, let him use his evident legal talent for the good of those in need -- and as a down payment on his own redemption.
Jeff Smith, a former Democratic member of the Missouri Senate from 2006-09, is a professor in the Urban Policy graduate program at The New School in New York City. He spent 2010 in federal prison.