At any moment, the jury deciding the fate of former Senator John Edwards could return with a guilty verdict that would send him to prison for violating campaign finance laws. If given the maximum sentence, the man who once ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 2004 – and bid for the top spot in 2008 – could spend the rest of his life behind bars, like Liberian warlord Charles Taylor.
But unlike Taylor, Edwards has not committed thousands of crimes against humanity, burning families to death in their homes and chopping off the limbs of defenseless civilians. Indeed, the former Senator may not have committed any crimes at all, according to the Federal Election Commission, whose views on that question were ruled inadmissible by the judge in the US District Court in Greensboro, North Carolina. Although Edwards is a narcissistic deceiver who hurt many good people, including his own family, none of his bad personal behavior violated the law.
So why is the Edwards case worth the expenditure of thousands of hours and millions of dollars by Justice Department prosecutors? That question seems especially pertinent this week for two reasons. The first is that the former wife of Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) has filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that Kirk used campaign funds in 2010 to keep both her and his mistress quiet about their tangled domestic affairs. If true, that presents a much clearer violation that that charged against Edwards, which did not involve any actual contributions to his presidential campaign.
Yet a still more compelling basis for wondering about the priorities of the Justice Department, however, is the publication of Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption and the Hijacking of America by Charles Ferguson, whose film Inside Job, which examined the forces behind the 2008 financial crash, won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2010. The central event (or non-event) of Predator Nation is the failure of the US Government – the same government putting so much effort into jailing Edwards – to prosecute any of the major financiers and fraudsters culpable in the highly profitable ruin on the US and world economy.
Ferguson told Alternet recently that the inaction of the Obama Administration over the past few years — and specifically the Justice Department – has proved a profound disappointment to him.
“I was not under the illusion when I made [Inside Job] that I was single-handedly going to change the course of American political history,” he told Alternet’s Don Hazen. “And I wouldn’t say that nothing has happened. In fact, in one area, namely in academia, there’s actually been quite significant change. But still, no senior person has gone to jail as a result of the activities that led to the bubble and crisis.”
What highlights this failure, of course, is that both the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission referred substantial evidence of banker misconduct to federal and state prosecutors more than a year ago – with no action to date. Instead, the white-collar division seems to have focused on the likes of Edwards, whose alleged offenses are literally penny ante – and whose conviction is unlikely to deter any significant crime in the future.
The deterrent effect of a long prison sentence and a stiff fine might well serve the public interest on Wall Street, where a special prosecutor ought to have gone hunting for miscreants years ago. Until the federal government prosecutes some “senior person” – preferably more than one – for the massive fraud and scams that precipitated the crash, the Edwards verdict, win or lose, will only symbolize the far more consequential and troubling offenses that this administration has yet to pursue.