WASHINGTON — Is it "anything goes" now in America's campaign finance system?
John Edwards is acquitted of using campaign cash as hush money. There's an explosion of high-dollar super political action committees in the presidential race. It's all stoking criticism of revisions and regulatory loopholes in a system that was intended to keep better control of political money after Watergate.
Loosening the law has made it easier for politicians to butt up against the legal line — if not cross it — and for wealthy Americans to influence who wins office, from the White House on down.
All told, the immense amount of money in American campaigns, the cozy relationships between candidates and their financial backers — and now, too, a seeming lack of accountability for alleged rule-breakers — is fueling the public's long-standing distrust of its politicians and doubts about the credibility of the system.
"There's not much for voters to have faith in," says Trevor Potter, a former Federal Election Commission member and a proponent of campaign-finance reform. "We don't have much of a campaign-finance system at this stage, and we are wide open to the possibilities of corruption."
Spanning many weeks, the Edwards trial in North Carolina showcased what prosecutors said was a classic case of misusing campaign funds: Here was a former presidential candidate, they said, who channeled large sums of money from a deep-pocketed donor to cover up a love child and a mistress. But jurors acquitted Edwards, in part because the statute he was charged under required him to know he was breaking the law.