Ballot Box

The Worst of John Edwards

A troubling tale from his past. Is it true?

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, and claims to fame. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at his worst. Here’s the one told by critics of John Edwards—and what they leave out.

Charge: In March 2003, employees of Turner & Associates, a law firm in Little Rock, Ark., gave Edwards campaign contributions that appear to have been illegal. One Turner clerk who gave Edwards $2,000 told the Washington Post that the firm’s principal, Tab Turner, “asked for people to support Edwards” and assured them that “he would reimburse us.” Another clerk affirmed that she had given Edwards $2,000 on the understanding that Turner would reimburse her. Such reimbursements are illegal because they circumvent the $2,000 limit. The U.S. Justice Department reportedly opened an investigation, and in May 2003, the American Conservative Union asked the Federal Elections Commission to examine Edwards for “a pattern of clear violation” of campaign-finance laws. The ACU’s chairman said of Edwards, “It’s clear that he and his campaign organized this thing in order to allow trial lawyers and their firms to contribute illegal money.” As of August 2003, neither the FEC nor the Justice Department had released any conclusions.

The Edwards campaign returned the $10,000 it had received from Turner employees but declined to review the legality of donations from employees at other law firms, arguing that “we don’t have any reason to presume irregularities elsewhere.” Although $10,000 is a small fraction of the $7.4 million Edwards raised in the first quarter of 2003, it helped him eke out a narrow victory (by $400,000) over John Kerry in the money contest, giving Edwards a crucial publicity boost. The donations also undermined Edwards’ posture as a campaign reformer and underscored his financial dependence on plaintiffs’ attorneys.

Defense: As of August 2003, no evidence had been produced to show that the Edwards campaign knew any of the contributions were illegal. Tab Turner said he hadn’t realized that reimbursements were forbidden. As soon as irregularities were disclosed, Edwards returned contributions from all employees of the Turner firm, not just the two employees who had said they expected reimbursement. The Washington Post investigated paralegals from other firms who had donated to Edwards but found no indication that these donors had been reimbursed. The Los Angeles Times reported, “There has been no suggestion that the Edwards campaign, or Edwards himself, did anything wrong.”