By J. Andrew Curliss
A powerhouse Washington lawyer said in an interview Thursday that he is advocating with critical "decision makers" at the Justice Department and in Raleigh on behalf of John Edwards, the former senator and presidential candidate who is the subject of a federal criminal investigation.
Gregory B. Craig, who was White House counsel for the first year of President Barack Obama's presidency, was brought into the case in recent weeks.
Craig's involvement coincides with what appears to be a shift from secret grand jury testimony into a final phase of decision-making by Justice officials who are weighing whether Edwards violated campaign laws. Edwards denies breaking the law.
Craig and Edwards' North Carolina lawyers, Wade Smith of Raleigh and Jim Cooney of Charlotte, are working to persuade prosecutors not to bring charges in the case.
Prosecutors have declined to comment, and so the scope and nature of the case is unclear.
Craig and the Edwards legal team also have declined to discuss details. But they say an indictment that brings campaign crime charges related to the funneling of money to support Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, would put prosecutors in uncharted territory.
"There is no violation of law here," Craig said in the interview. "It would be an unprecedented application of the campaign-finance laws. It's a huge stretch."
Craig declined to discuss the nature of his discussions with Justice officials.
Because of his work for Obama, Craig is prohibited by "revolving-door" rules from advocating before the most senior Justice Department officials through the end of this year. He said the rules cover the top three tiers of the agency.
Craig said those rules do not extend to the chief or assistants in the Justice Department's public integrity section, which is where the Edwards case is being evaluated. Officials at the Justice Department did not immediately respond to questions about the rules, which are aimed at creating a two-year "cooling-off" period before government officials can seek to influence their old colleagues.
Craig said those rules do not preclude contacts with the U.S. attorney in Raleigh, George E.B. Holding, or his assistants.
"You can assume that we've been in touch with everybody who is involved in the case," Craig said.
Craig isn't a household name in Raleigh. But in Washington, he has clout.
He defended Clinton
Craig led Bill Clinton's successful impeachment defense in the Senate. (Edwards, then a relatively unknown senator from North Carolina, also was involved, and his performance helped him gain national attention.)
Craig was a senior adviser to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy for years and to former Secretary of State Madeline Albright. He represented former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in connection with an investigation of the oil-for-food program at the United Nations. In 1982, Craig defended John Hinckley Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan.
NPR News first reported that Edwards had hired Craig.
Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond who follows the Justice Department, said Craig is without question a big name.
"He has a great reputation as being very effective for his clients and has had a number of difficult clients to represent," Tobias said. "He is very successful. I would expect he might be effective here."
Craig broke from the Clintons in the 2008 campaign to support Obama, who then chose him as White House counsel.
He returned to private practice after a tumultuous first year that included decisions on banning torture and ordering the Guantanamo Bay prison closed.
Influence in Washington
Tobias said Craig's influence is greater with officials in Washington than in Raleigh, where Holding, a Republican, is still in the office.
"He would have pretty good relationships with people at Justice at the upper level and would know a number of them - you know, Washington is a small town in terms of relationships of that sort," Tobias said.
Craig said that he has been clear in his meetings that he is intending his advocacy not to extend up the chain.