Afghan justice, Putin’s palace, and the Edwards trial

By Steven Brill
March 13, 2012

1. International, Afghan and American law surrounding the accused soldier-murderer:

With the Afghan Parliament demanding yesterday that the American soldier accused of killing 16 civilians there be put on trial locally rather than be tried by American military courts, I’m betting that the office of State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and others in Washington are working overtime to frame a response. How will they decide whether our army turns him over? What could their arguments be against that? What are prevailing international law and military law precedents, and how much will they matter? What are the likely ramifications for the presidential election? What position will the Republican candidates take? All parts of an important, urgent story likely to play out this week.

2. Putin’s billion-dollar palace?

Check out these two sentences embedded in a recent New York Times story about how various cronies of Russian prime minister and now president-elect Vladimir Putin have all become billionaires:

Mr. Putin has repeatedly denied any involvement in the enrichment of these and other acquaintances, and he has forcefully dismissed assertions made by his political opponents that he himself is a secret beneficiary of these enterprises and has amassed tens of billions of dollars in bank accounts outside Russia.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman has also denied any connection to a sprawling resort complex that some of Mr. Putin’s St. Petersburg acquaintances were said to be building for him as a “palace” on the Black Sea at a cost of as much as $1 billion.

I assume the Times is working overtime to find out more about that billion-dollar “palace” and get some good pictures of it, assuming it exists. I hope FT, Reuters, Businessweek, AP and others, including any Russian media people brave enough to try, are on the case, too, and working all the sources they can to find out about those bank accounts. This story — if true and proved, especially with pictures and records that go viral — could set off a Russian Spring.

3. Edwards trial curtain-raiser:

Former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards is scheduled to go on trial in April for campaign finance corruption, and there’s a great story to be done about the murky legal issues — juxtaposed against the obvious personal melodrama — surrounding his case.

Edwards is about as sympathetic a figure as Charles Manson. But what he’s actually been indicted for merits a thoughtful look at whether prosecutors are trying to turn being an awful husband and overall vile human being into a crime. The charges boil down to this: When Edwards got two campaign supporters to chip in more than $925,000 to support and hide his mistress and their baby during his 2008 campaign, he had actually taken illegal campaign contributions — because the money contributed by the two supporters was over the limits governing individual donors and was never reported to the Federal Election Commission. The prosecutors’ reasoning is that because the hush money kept the Edwards scandal a secret, therefore enabling him to stay in the presidential race, it was money spent to support the campaign.

What if a candidate has a facelift, or buys a new wardrobe, or takes Spanish lessons, and someone pays for those image-enhancers? What about a kidney transplant that keeps a candidate alive, thereby keeping his candidacy alive? Or a college or law school education paid for by a parent or an uncle that dresses up the resume of someone who has vowed since he became a teenager that he was going to run for senator or president? Are these all campaign contributions that are subject to limits and to the FEC’s reporting requirements?

Conversely, if Edwards had done what the prosecution seems to be saying he should have done to stay within the law — used legally raised and reported campaign donations to pay off his mistress and support their baby — wouldn’t that have been a diversion of campaign funds for personal use, which is explicitly against FEC regulations?

The lawyer for Edwards, Gregory Craig (a star litigator who was President Obama’s first White House counsel), put it this way when Edwards was indicted: “In the history of the federal election campaign law, no one has ever been charged, either civilly or criminally, with the claims that have been brought against Senator Edwards … No one would have known or should have known or could have been expected to know that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions … He has broken no law.”

Beyond getting lots of color and expert opinion about that defense, as well as previewing the two sides’ strategies for using and countering it, there’s another thing any reporter working this story on Edwards must do: Stick a microphone in his face and ask the multimillionaire former trial lawyer why he didn’t just pay the hush money himself instead of persuading his two top supporters to pony up. That would have been unquestionably legal and remained a completely private matter. I can’t wait to hear his answer. Maybe he’ll stay in his new contrition mode and say that, among his other sins, he’s also cheap and perennially entitled.

Author’s note: I’ve just learned that in January Bloomberg’s Jonathan Alter did this comprehensive story that, while because of its early timing wasn’t a curtain raiser for the trial that included a preview of trial strategy, covered exactly the issues I have suggested related to the legitimacy of the charges against Edwards. In fact, Alter even used a version of one of the hypotheticals I spun – paying for college tuition – to illustrate the point.

4. Low-wage, long-distance trade economics:

The various stories recently about Foxconn raising wages for the workers who make Apple, Dell and lots of other high-tech products, as well as the possible return of manufacturing jobs to the United States because wages elsewhere are gradually rising, reminded me of a shopping experience I had last Christmas: My wife and I bought a few small but elaborately decorated candle sconces (at Kohl’s, I think) for a party and marveled at the $2.99 price. We then noticed, as best I can remember, that the wax and wick for the candles had been imported from Sri Lanka (or it might have been Vietnam), while the sconce holding it had come from another Asian country, whereupon the product had been assembled in China. A three-country production process to ship something to the East Coast of the United States to be sold for $2.99. How could all that coordination and shipping possibly be profitable?

So, I’d like to see an article that takes various products now produced overseas and spells out why it makes sense economically to do so, and how much the wage gap would have to narrow for that work to come home. For those candles, I’m guessing that paying slave wages is what offsets the various shipping and assembly costs (which now makes me wonder how guilty I should feel about having bought the stuff). But I’d still like to see how the economics stack up.

The CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley recently did a terrific story about higher-level manufacturing jobs, profiling a woman who runs a Canton, Ohio plant that manufactures space heaters. She had figured out how to streamline the process in a way that enabled her company to move operations back from China. Television being television, the CBS report didn’t have the numbers and other important data — wage differentials, availability of materials, shipping costs and differences in available skilled or unskilled labor. I’d like to see those details in a story covering a whole variety of products, but one that doesn’t lose the people elements that CBS captured so well.

5. Hats off to the Washington Post:

For journalists, the best definition of a good story may be that as soon as you see it, your reaction is: “Why didn’t I think of that?” Here’s one that appeared in the Washington Post on Saturday that’s so good it deserves a special hat tip.

PHOTO: Afghan National Army soldiers keep watch as Afghans gather outside a U.S. base in Panjwai district Kandahar province, March 11, 2012. Coalition forces killed 15 civilians in a shooting spree in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province on Sunday, the defence ministry said, in an incident likely to deepen the growing divide between Washington and Kabul. REUTERS/Ahmad Nadeem

3 comments

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I’m glad to see that Mr. Edwards is finally being tried for something, although the legalities of campaign financing are beyond me. His really heinous acts were all those lawsuits he filed against thoe poor OB-GYN doctors for birth defects that they did not cause, based on junk science that of course was later disprooved. I can’t imagine how he would ever repay those physicians for the anguish and financial losses he caused them and their families.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

An interesting question would be whether any American Presidential candidates, including Obama, think it is possible for a Federal employee to commit a crime abroad that is subject to foreign jurisdiction. My bet would be “no”.

They cannot commit crimes at home in the USA either, by practice if not by statute. Even though some do not dare venture abroad for fear of ending up in the dock in The Hague for either war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive