WASHINGTON — Should John Edwards be indicted on criminal charges, he would be prosecuted by the same Justice Department outfit that infamously botched the investigation of the late Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska.
The Stevens screw-up led to internal ousters, dropped criminal charges, a federal investigation and, tragically, the suicide of a promising young prosecutor. Legal observers say that with the high-profile Edwards case, the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section would be under intense scrutiny.
"The Department of Justice as a whole, and the Public Integrity Section in particular, has a black eye," said Bob Bittman, a white-collar defense attorney at White & Case in Washington who once was the chief prosecutor in charge of the Monica Lewinsky investigation involving President Bill Clinton.
In the Stevens case, prosecutors were accused of withholding information from his defense that should have been disclosed.
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"They just were not seen as fair," Bittman said. "If they bring something (against Edwards), they will have some redeeming to do."
The small public integrity office supports U.S. attorneys around the country and often goes after local and state officials.
But sometimes, the targets are bigger. Stevens was convicted of seven felonies for failing to disclose personal gifts in the form of renovations to his Alaskan home.
There were allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, though, and when Attorney General Eric Holder took office in 2009, he dismissed the indictment against Stevens and worked to repair the division's reputation.
A new Public Integrity Section chief, Jack Smith, was brought in from a federal district in New York with a reputation for aggressiveness. Smith was not made available for an interview.
But in a speech Wednesday, Lanny A. Breuer, the assistant U.S. attorney general for the criminal division, told a group of federal defense lawyers that since the Stevens case, the agency has installed new training to ensure that prosecutors disclose what they must.
If Edwards is indicted, the Public Integrity Section would be prosecuting another high-profile target.
"The man ran for vice president. They're going to be careful," said Peter Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University in Michigan and co-author of a new book, "Prosecution and Defense of Public Corruption." "Their reputation's on the line, too."
The two-year Edwards investigation focused on whether hundreds of thousands of dollars given by two wealthy supporters to help hide his mistress were gifts or illegal campaign donations. Edwards' attorneys are thought to be negotiating with the U.S. Attorney's office over a possible plea deal to avoid indictment.
Statistically, the section has an impressive record, and it likely will see the Edwards case as entirely separate from problems in the Stevens case, said Solomon L. Wisenberg, co-chairman of the white-collar crime practice at the Barnes & Thornburg law firm in Washington and once an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina.
"But the rap is that for the most part they go after mid-level and low-level people," Wisenberg said.
The Public Integrity Section would not comment on any aspect of the Edwards case, but a spokeswoman provided a list of recent cases the group has handled. It included convictions this year of state elected officials in Virginia and Puerto Rico, corruption and racketeering charges against former U.S. Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona, and a trial beginning next week on bribery charges in Alabama involving bingo legislation.
A recent report from Senate Ethics Committee investigators also cast doubt on decisions made by the Public Integrity Section. In December, a lawyer for then-Sen. John Ensign of Nevada announced that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges against Ensign for payments to his mistress and her husband.
The sharply worded report from the Ethics Committee concluded that Ensign probably had broken a number of federal laws and referred the matter back to the Public Integrity Section for possible prosecution.
Prosecuting public corruption is difficult, observers say, because there could always be a hint of impropriety: Are prosecutors going after a political enemy?
At the same time, top Justice Department officials understand the potential impact of criminal charges — especially for politicians — and would be extremely cautious before proceeding, Henning said.
"There's great concern that even a hint of investigation can destroy someone's career," said Henning, the Wayne State professor. "If Edwards is going to be charged, that could be even the (attorney general) signing off on it.
"You have to be very careful; I mean, you've destroyed him. "The destruction to his reputation has already happened, but if charges are filed, that pretty much seals it."
(Joseph Neff of the News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., contributed.)
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