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Is John Edwards a criminal?

The prosecution has rested in a case that should never have been brought: the ghastly soap opera better known as the criminal trial of John Edwards. The testimony has been salacious, mesmerizing and revolting. Edwards has been proved to be what everyone already knew beyond a reasonable doubt: an egocentric cad.

But a criminal? Nothing in the evidence so far has shaken my view that this case is an unfortunate instance of prosecutorial indiscretion.

Edwards' financial backers provided money for his mistress, Rielle Hunter; the cash served the dual role of keeping the affair hidden from Edwards' wife and maintaining the candidate's political viability.

It is possible to shoehorn this conduct into a violation of the campaign finance laws. First, the money was not disclosed as a campaign contribution -- although, Catch-22, if it had been reported as such, it would have been illegal because it was used for an improper, non-campaign purpose. Second, the amount spent on Hunter, close to $1 million, vastly exceeds the total that the individuals could legally contribute to Edwards' presidential campaign.

Yet what is the larger goal served by prosecuting Edwards? Retribution? His career is in ruins. To keep future straying pols from misusing campaign funds? Surely that deterrent effect has been already applied -- by the National Enquirer.

The irony -- tragedy? -- of this misapplication of government resources is heightened by an unsettling coincidence: Even as Edwards faces prison for taking outsized campaign contributions, such mega-donations have become the central feature of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Smart election lawyers seized on court rulings to create a dangerous creature known as a candidate-specific super PAC. This vehicle allows a politician's supporters to spend unlimited amounts in supposedly independent expenditures on the candidate's behalf.

Thus, Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam could openly spend $20 million to try to help Newt Gingrich become president.

"We will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said when the Edwards indictment was issued last year.

Noble sentiments, but hard to square with the squalid new reality of candidate-specific super PACs, which exist for the very purpose of letting candidates "access the coffers" of political supporters "to circumvent our election laws."

In Washington, the real threat to "the integrity of democratic elections" that Breuer cited in going after Edwards grows unchecked.

The Supreme Court, with a dewy-eyed view of independent expenditures blind to the inevitability of wink-and-nod coordination, opened the door to this flood of campaign cash.

The entities that could close it are hamstrung and unmotivated. Congress has no appetite for fixing the law, and little ability, in its gridlocked state, to make that happen.

The Federal Election Commission, which could step in to write tighter regulations, is paralyzed in a three-to-three standoff between Democrats and Republicans.

The terms of five of the six commissioners have expired. The president, who once pledged to ensure "strong, impartial leadership" at the FEC, hasn't bothered to submit a candidate since the one he nominated in 2009 withdrew after 15 months of congressional inaction.

Something is very wrong with this picture.