John Edwards Plays Victim, but Was U.S. Attorney Holding Partisan?

The man who covered up his mistress is crying foul. But his prosecutor may well have been partisan.

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Politically motivated prosecution. That’s the line being pursued by the defense team of ex-senator/ex-presidential contender/universally derided cad John Edwards. Team Edwards’s Jim Cooney, Wade Smith, and white-collar superdefender Abbe Lowell have filed a motion to dismiss, accusing recently retired U.S. Attorney George Holding, a onetime aide to Jesse Helms, of committing himself to taking down Edwards out of partisan animosity and “prosecutorial vindictiveness.”

On its face, this sounds like a pathetically whiny ploy, the last refuge of slick litigators who recognize if not how guilty their client looks, then at least how much most Americans long to punch him in the face. And yet …

Around North Carolina there has long been chatter about Holding, who spent his five years as a federal prosecutor investigating an array of Democratic officeholders, including former governor Mike Easley and current Gov. Bev Perdue. In July, a month after Edwards’s indictment and five days after stepping down as U.S. attorney, Holding announced he would run for Congress next year against Democratic incumbent Brad Miller. As the Raleigh News & Observer noted, the primary field will likely be crowded, “but none of the Republican candidates have the visibility of Holding.” When I was in the state earlier this summer, even random citizens who thought Edwards was irredeemable scum voiced suspicions about Holding’s motives.

As Edwards’s lawyers are eager to remind everyone—and carefully lay out in their motion to dismiss—Holding was an appointee of the Bush Justice Department during a period when politically focused prosecutions were encouraged and U.S. attorneys deemed insufficiently partisan were targeted for replacement. (Just ask former attorney general Alberto Gonzales how much fun the resulting scandal and multiple probes turned out to be.)

By the time Obama was elected, Holding had an established reputation for pursuing public corruption cases. This put the new administration in an awkward spot. Technically, Obama, who carried North Carolina, was expected to replace Holding with a Democratic appointee. To do so, however, would open up both the president and North Carolina’s newly elected Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan to accusations of trying to stifle ongoing investigations for partisan reasons. So Hagan’s office urged Obama to let Holding stay on in the job until he wrapped up both cases. Perdue, the newly elected governor, concurred.

The move made perfect political sense, but it put Holding in an unusually powerful position. “Who was he accountable to?” asks Ferrel Guillory, head of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina’s journalism school. “He was kind of free to go wherever he wanted to go in both the Easley investigation and the Edwards investigation.”

And after months of probing, what did Holding wind up with? In Easley’s case, the ex-governor pleaded to a single count of violating state campaign-finance laws (he failed to report hitching a ride to a campaign event in a supporter’s helicopter) for which he paid a $1,000 fine, while one of his aides drew a short jail stint after bargaining more than four dozen counts down to one.

Edwards is charged with using nearly $1 million in illegal campaign donations to prevent the public from learning about his mistress, Rielle Hunter, the mother of his 2-year-old child. But Holding secured the indictment using a novel interpretation of campaign-finance laws about which many legal experts have expressed doubts. Even the watchdog group CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington), which typically crusades for more vigorous prosecution of public corruption, has decried the government’s indictment of Edwards.

“It’s a terrible case,” asserts CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “I just can’t say harsh enough things about it.” Citing what she sees as a half-dozen fundamental flaws, including Holding’s swift shift from pursuing Edwards to running for office on the Republican ticket, Sloan predicts “a total disaster” for Justice—which would suit her fine. So misguided does CREW consider the indictment, says Sloan, it plans to file an amicus brief with the court on behalf of Edwards.

Not that this is Holding’s concern any longer. A few days after handing his Democratic successor the awkward job of pursuing the contentious case, Holding announced his run for Congress. Even at this tender stage of the campaign, his crusading term as U.S. attorney is, unsurprisingly, a prominent part of his pitch. Among the rotating features on the campaign’s homepage is a TV news segment with the headline: “Prosecutor stepping down after Edwards indictment.” Also unsurprisingly, Holding is already being hit with questions from local reporters about whether he targeted big-name Democrats to further his political career.

None of which is to suggest that Team Edwards’s motion for dismissal is likely to go anywhere. The trial has been postponed until January, and Sloan says it’s less risky for the Justice Department to plow ahead and lose than to endure Republican accusations of protecting a prominent Democrat. Still, you have to marvel at the degree to which even bit players in John Edwards’s icky soap opera wind up looking a little shady.