Former US senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is on trial for violating campaign finance laws. If convicted, Edwards could spend the next 30 years in a federal prison.
The case features a colorful cast of characters. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, would have to strain his imagination to conceive of such a crew. And the back stories, well, they are to die for.
Center stage, of course, is Edwards. A textile worker's son who made millions as a worker's compensation lawyer, Edwards was elected to the US Senate in 1998. He later cultivated a reputation as a champion of the poor and downtrodden, and ultimately became a punch line for late-night comics because of his fondness for $400 haircuts.
Then there's Rielle Hunter, his mistress and the mother of his love child. Hunter is a New Age flake with a taste for high living who, in her younger days, was said to be the inspiration for one of Jay McInerney's most memorable characters, Alison Poole, a cocaine-sniffing, investment-banker-dating, poor-little-rich-Manhattan-party girl.
There's the wealthy widow, the source of the misused campaign contributions, a now 101-year-old socialite named Bunny Mellon. Mellon, in the early 1960s, was instrumental in helping first lady Jacqueline Kennedy transform the public rooms of the White House to the museum-quality grandeur they enjoy today.
And there's the villainous key witness, Andrew Young. Young did Edwards's bidding and then agreed to testify against the two-time presidential aspirant in order to save his own skin.
All of this may be titillating and make for good headlines, but it raises an uncomfortable question:
Why are federal prosecutors spending scarce tax dollars pursuing a failed politician for essentially paying hush money to his mistress when the criminal bankers who plunged this nation into economic chaos still walk free on Wall Street?
This question is asked not in the spirit of defending Edwards, who has proven himself to be a sleazeball who has almost certainly violated the campaign finance code.
Rather, it's meant as an indictment of Washington's twisted sense of justice. As long-time Phoenix contributor Harvey Silverglate has pointed out on numerous occasions in these pages, the feds could indict a ham sandwich if they choose to — or at least get the sandwich for obstruction of justice.
Federal prosecutors, in their power-mad zeal, are hell-bent on criminalizing behavior that should be dealt with in civil courts. That's what's happening before our eyes in the Edwards case.
Though no less odious, a minor-league example of this is taking place here in Massachusetts, where Attorney General Martha Coakley is pursuing criminal rather than civil charges of political corruption against former state treasurer Tim Cahill, who had the nerve to challenge the political establishment by running as an independent against incumbent Democratic governor Deval Patrick, and then had the misfortune of failing miserably in the process. Cahill forgot the lesson that, if you attempt to kill the king, you had better succeed.
Unlike Edwards's persecutors, Coakley has also gone after corrupt banks. But she has not been a profile in courage when it comes to investigating her political bedmates on Beacon Hill. Cahill's prosecution is a warped sort of justice by convenience. It's the same sort of let's-go-after-him-because-we-can thinking so typical of federal government.