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Edwards Verdict Is Another Big Loss for DOJ’s Public Integrity Section; Will He Be Retried?

Posted Jun 1, 2012 7:05 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The partial acquittal and mistrial on Thursday in the John Edwards trial is the second high-profile loss this year for the Justice Department’s public integrity section.

In the earlier loss, an Alabama jury acquitted several defendants in an alleged bribery and corruption scheme involving an effort to legalize gambling, the New York Times reports.

After nine days of deliberations, the Edwards jury acquitted the former Democratic presidential candidate on one campaign finance charge and deadlocked on five other counts. At issue was whether Edwards used illegal campaign contributions to conceal an affair. The acquittal concerned $200,000 from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon that was deposited after Edwards dropped out of the presidential race, the Washington Post reports.

Prosecutors had to prove Edwards knew about the payments; he claimed he was unaware of them, the Associated Press reports. A "knowledgeable law enforcement source" tells the Associated Press in a separate story that Edwards is unlikely to be retried.

Critics said the Justice Department based its aggressive prosecution on a novel interpretation of campaign finance law. The case was the first to prosecute someone for campaign finance violations based on money paid to a third party, observers said.

The verdict was a blow to a DOJ unit that has been trying to rebuild itself from the failed prosecution of Sen. Ted Stevens four years ago, the Times says. The Justice Department recently announced temporary suspensions of two prosecutors in the Stevens case for failing to turn over exculpatory information.

In an interview with the New York Times before the verdict, the leader of the public integrity unit, Jack Smith, defended his office’s performance. He said the media has focused on only a few cases. Last year, 47 defendants in public integrity cases pleaded guilty and 13 were convicted at trial. So far this year, 15 have pleaded guilty and eight have been convicted.

The results are part of a push to litigate more cases, he said. “We’re trying more cases than ever before in the section, and winning more than ever,” said Smith, who was appointed to his job two years ago.

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