Editor's note: Jeff Smith, who represented Missouri's 4th Senate District 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 for lying about a campaign finance violation. He is on Twitter: @jeffsmithMO
(CNN) -- Does John Edwards deserve to go to prison? The jury has decided, and he's walking.
Whatever we may think of the Edwards trial, one thing is certain: the prosecution was a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money on a non-crime. Who cares if a billionaire wants to give a multimillionaire some money to hide his mistress (who pays taxes on the gift)?
The prosecution of Edwards was never so much about Edwards as it was about George Holding.
Wait -- who is George Holding? And why should we care?
After winning a recent primary, Holding is likely the next congressman in the 13th District of North Carolina. He initiated the prosecution against Edwards while he was a U.S. Attorney. But he didn't argue the case in court. Instead, after receiving a year's worth of headlines (and Republican praise) for charging Edwards, Holding resigned from the case to run for Congress.
Maybe Holding understood the weakness of the case, which rested upon Edwards' failure to report the money billionaire heiress Bunny Mellon and another wealthy donor gave to him to help hide his mistress. The problem is that if Edwards had reported contributions and then used them for personal expenses, he would have been guilty of a crime, since the Federal Election Commission bars spending official campaign funds on personal expenses. Therefore, according to Holding, Edwards was damned if he did, and damned if he didn't.
To prove his case, Holding had to show that Edwards knowingly broke the law. But if neglecting to report the gifts as campaign contributions constituted a crime, yet reporting such gifts as contributions would violate existing law (by implying that Edwards converted contributions to personal use), then it is impossible to prove Edwards knew he was breaking the law, which would be necessary for a conviction.
That's not very good legal reasoning on which to rest a case -- especially a case unlike any other that had been successfully tried. And since Holding had access to all the available evidence and knew that no witness and no recordings would suggest that Edwards knew he was breaking the law, it is difficult to see how Holding thought he might win, other than hoping that jurors disliked Edwards so much they would convict him.
Or maybe Holding wasn't all that concerned with the legal reasoning. Perhaps he realized that, win or lose, he'd already gotten enough mileage from the case to realize his political ambitions. By the time he indicted Edwards, the well-connected Holding knew that the newly Republican state legislature had drawn a safe district he could win, if only he could get out of the primary. And what better way to appeal to Republican diehards than prosecuting the smarmy, liberal trial lawyer John Edwards? Holding certainly received his reward last month when he won his congressional primary.
The public generally associates politicians with the pursuit of ambition and power. Too often, investigators act from similar motives. Law enforcement officials seek to justify long, expensive investigations into high-profile targets by stretching the law to win convictions and mount the biggest scalps on their walls.
The former head of the St. Louis FBI who investigated me for a campaign finance violation years ago 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 investigators' adrenaline rushes or personal advancement. It's 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 a walking punch line, unfit to run for dog catcher. Why should prosecutors spend millions of dollars and years of time targeting him with novel legal theories?
I am familiar with Edwards' predicament. During my 2004 congressional campaign in Missouri, I approved a meeting between two aides and a man who wanted to send out a postcard highlighting my opponent's dismal attendance record in the state House. In the immediate aftermath, our campaign denied any involvement in the mailing, and then when faced with a Federal Election Commission complaint which gave us a chance to come clean, we maintained our denial. Five years later, through an unlikely set of circumstances culminating in my best friend's wiretap, I ended up in prison for a year.
As a current taxpayer who spent a year loading trucks at a prison warehouse, eating food for which you, dear reader, paid, I can tell you two things. First, I did not want to pay to house, feed and clothe multimillionaire lawyer John Edwards. Second, the only person in this sordid mess whom prosecutors should have considered indicting is someone who was already granted immunity. That's right, Andrew Young, who defrauded the 99-year-old Bunny Mellon by siphoning (or, more precisely, stealing) hundreds of thousands of dollars to build his dream house.
Of course, prosecuting Young wouldn't have gotten George Holding all the publicity that prosecuting John Edwards did, and it definitely wouldn't have gotten him to Congress.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Smith.