As legal experts debate the strength of the campaign finance case against former Senator John Edwards, more details are emerging about the untold story leading up to that indictment. Justice Department officials in Washington wrestled with the political implications of ending a two-year investigation of the prominent Democrat with no criminal charges. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: Weeks before the indictment of John Edwards on six felony charges, lawyers for the former Democratic presidential candidate were knocking on doors at the Justice Department in Washington. They were trying to convince department officials - top Democratic political appointees - to pull the plug on the criminal case. That would have been a hard sell even in an ordinary prosecution, let alone one that's completely intertwined with politics.

Stan Brand is a prominent Democratic campaign lawyer in Washington.

STAN BRAND: The optics drive that and you can't expect uncommon courage from the Department of Justice in the face of that.

JOHNSON: And tanking an indictment of John Edwards would certainly have been controversial.

BRAND: The way the bureaucracy works, the Department of Justice generally defers to local prosecutors. And when they don't, they are accused of interference and obstruction and all kinds of heinous crimes themselves.

JOHNSON: Local prosecutors, such as the U.S. Attorney in North Carolina, George Holding, a hold-over from the Bush administration and a protege of the late Republican Senator Jesse Helms. Holding's prosecutors had spent two years investigating questionable payments from Edwards's donors that went to support the candidate's mistress and their baby.

The government team in North Carolina worked hand in hand with veteran public corruption prosecutors in Washington, who also wanted to move ahead with an indictment.

The political equation got even more complicated earlier this year after Edwards hired Greg Craig, a man who had served as President Obama's first White House counsel. Craig paraded a group of campaign finance experts to the Justice Department to persuade the government not to bring criminal charges.

PETER ZEIDENBERG: The fact that it didn't work apparently in this case doesn't mean it certainly wasn't worth every effort.

JOHNSON: That's Peter Zeidenberg. He used to prosecute public corruption cases.

ZEIDENBERG: You want to stave off an indictment at all costs if you possibly can.

JOHNSON: Last minute plea talks would have given Edwards a way to avoid losing his license to practice law, but the deal would not have ruled out some prison time. So, Edwards rolled the dice.

Rick Hasen teaches election law at the University of California. He says the Justice Department is taking a risk too.

RICK HASEN: When the government takes on a big fish, and does so in a high profile way, it can serve an important public purpose in saying that no person is above the law. But when the government takes on those cases and loses, it can lead to a situation where the government is embarrassed.

JOHNSON: Richard Pildes teaches election law at New York University. He's one of the scholars raising doubts about the government's case against John Edwards.

ZEIDENBERG: There's uncertainty about whether this kind of money being spent to conceal an affair is a contribution at all within the meaning of the federal election laws.

JOHNSON: To win the case, prosecutors would need to prove Edwards knew the money was flowing and that it was a donation to prop up his run for the presidency - not a personal gift from friends who wanted to help him keep the affair secret from his family. That might be unseemly, but it's not illegal.

Zeidenberg, the former public corruption prosecutor, says he sees other problems with the Justice Department case. One of the Edwards donors is dead; the second is 100 years old.

ZEIDENBERG: And the third person has significant credibility issues, who's written a book and made money off of it.

JOHNSON: That third person is Andrew Young, once a close aide to Edwards. Young for a time said he was the father of the former Senator's baby. Young has given different accounts about the money that went to support the child and whether the cash was intended as a donation or a gift - the heart of the government's case.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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