By RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.
ASHINGTON, April 23 — The Justice Department's public integrity section has opened a criminal investigation into donations made to the presidential campaign of Senator John Edwards by employees at a prominent Arkansas law firm, according to lawyers close to the matter.
The donations were made by five employees at Turner & Associates, a North Little Rock firm that specializes in bringing lawsuits arising from injuries caused by vehicle defects and rollovers, notably those involving Ford sport utility vehicles and Bridgestone/Firestone tires.
The employees, four of whom were listed as "legal assistants" on the Edwards organization's federal campaign-finance filings, gave $10,000 to the campaign in early March. Those donations were returned by campaign officials after they were informed by a reporter for The Washington Post last week that one employee at the firm, Michelle Abu-Halmeh, had told the paper that it was her understanding that she would be reimbursed by her boss, Tab Turner, for her contribution of $2,000.
Individuals are allowed to give no more than $2,000 per election to a federal candidate, and it is a violation of federal election law to conceal the true source of a donation.
The Arkansas firm is headed by Mr. Turner, who did not respond to messages today. A lawyer for him, Douglas P. Dowd of St. Louis, was unavailable for comment, a person at Mr. Dowd's firm said. Ms. Abu-Halmeh referred calls to her lawyer, Jonathan Lane of Little Rock, who was also unavailable. And Bryan Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said he could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation was under way.
A spokeswoman for the Edwards campaign, Jennifer Palmieri, said this afternoon that campaign officials had not been contacted by the Justice Department.
"Our campaign abides by the highest standards," Ms. Palmieri said, "and once we learned of the allegations of wrongdoing by the firm, we returned all the donations we received from employees of the firm. And we're glad to see that the appropriate law enforcement officials are following up on what we consider to be a serious matter."
Yet the inquiry may draw further attention to Mr. Edwards's heavy dependence on donations from fellow personal-injury lawyers. The senator, an accomplished trial lawyer from North Carolina who is one of nine candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination, raised $7.4 million during the first quarter, more than any rival.
But about two-thirds of that amount came from lawyers, law firm employees or their families, and political opponents question whether Mr. Edwards will be able to continue his feverish fund-raising pace, and suggest that his reliance on lawyers could become an effective campaign issue against him. Business groups that have made curtailing lawsuits a top legislative priority are already working against his candidacy, with the first primaries still nine months away.
The case involving Turner & Associates also puts the Bush Justice Department in the position of investigating donors to Mr. Edwards, who is considered one of the stronger potential challengers to the president, in part because of his early fund-raising success.
In addition, the inquiry means a rare dose of unwelcome publicity for Mr. Turner, who gained national prominence as one of the leading lawyers pursuing cases of death and injury involving Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires.