Politicians [are] a set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who, to say the most of them, are, taken as a mass, at least one long step removed from honest men.
Abraham Lincoln, Speech in Ill. Legislature 1837
Recent events create an awareness that too little guidance has been given politicians on the proper way to deal with problems that arise when the non-politically ambitious partner in an illicit affair with the politically ambitious partner decides to share news of the affair with the public and the politically ambitious partner hopes to keep that from happening or seeks to mitigate the damage. Herewith four examples of how politicians have dealt with the issue. The first two involve using strangers’ money. They are demonstrated by Bill Richardson and John Edwards.
In 2007 a former state employee threatened to sue then Governor Bill Richardson because of an affair they allegedly had. A meeting of his campaign team and his “inner circle” reportedly took place to determine how to settle the threatened suit before it became public. The solution they hit upon was that Mr. Richardson’s supporters would pay the accuser $250,000 to keep the matter quiet. Mr. Richardson, who was then considering a run for the presidency, is now the target of a grand jury probe over whether there may have been campaign contribution violations in connection with those payments. According to a report in the Albuquerque Journal the grand jury is trying to determine whether that money came from money that had been raised to enable the governor to fund his presidential aspirations which would have violated campaign finance laws, or whether the money paid to the mistress came from wealthy friends of the candidate as gifts.
Mr. Richardson’s supporters may have been using the example set by John Edwards although Mr. Edwards’ problems were more complex since his liaison had produced a tiny Edwards. According to reports, Mr. Edwards received more than $725,000 from a wealthy old (she is 100) friend, Bunny Mellon, that he used to buy the silence of his girlfriend. The question that will be answered by a federal jury next January is whether those payments were campaign contributions that should have been reported or gifts that did not need to be reported. (Bunny reportedly filed gift tax returns reflecting the gift.) Mr. Edwards initially claimed to know nothing of the money (or the baby) and being now aware of both, says the money was not a disguised form of campaign support that should have been reported to the government but simply a gift. The government disagrees. Because of the differing perceptions of what the payments represented, a 12-person jury will decide whether the government or the candidate has the proper understanding of the facts.
Another way of dealing with his kind of problem was shown by former Senator John Ensign. When the senator’s affair with the wife of his long time aide became public in 2009, he asked his parents for help, and they wrote out a check to her, her husband and their two children for $96,000. As a result, there was no grand jury inquiry into the source of the money. Indeed, Mr. Ensign’s lawyer, Paul Coggins, specifically said that “None of the gifts came from campaign or official funds nor were they related to any campaign or official duties. Senator Ensign has complied with all applicable laws and Senate ethics rules.” The money was not hush money since the affair was already public. Mr. Coggins said the payment was made “out of concern for the well-being of long-time family friends during a difficult time.” Of course not all parents are able or willing to pay off their children’s mistresses so that example is probably less useful for the run of the mill politician.
Herman Cain had a different approach. When Mr. Cain learned that a woman who claimed to have had a 12-year affair with him was going public, he beat her to the punch by publicly denying the affair before she had a chance to disclose it. He paid her no money thus avoiding campaign finance laws proscriptions He simply called her a liar. This made good sense since he had already called three women who weeks earlier had accused him of sexual harassment, liars. People who believed him when he said the first three accusers were liars probably believed the final accuser was a liar. Those who did not believe the first three were liars would probably not believe the fourth accuser was a liar. In short, no one’s opinion of Herman Cain was changed by the final allegation. Mr. Cain’s approach was obviously better than trying to buy the silence of the fourth accuser.
He avoided an investigation of his finances.
It is too early to know how Messrs. Edwards and Richardson will fare when the dust settles. We do know that Mr. Ensign resigned his senate seat and that Mr. Cain abandoned his quest for the White House. Both results were more of a sacrifice for them than for the country.
Christopher Brauchli is an attorney living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.