I see Maggie commented below my previous post, and I thank her for responding by email as well.
Steven, you probably won't find someone more opposed to the labyrinthine campaign finance and disclosure system than me. Like you, I believe the system is gamed to provide little traps which can be sprung for the opposition's political benefit whenever they feel the need. Here in Ohio, legislators have written exclusions to their own disclosure requirements so they, in many cases, do not face the same rules as members of the executive or local officials. It really is messed up.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of important points about the Noe funneling case, which I've followed pretty closely. First, Noe set out to break the law, intentionally. He knew the donation limits, and plotted a way to get around them. This was not a case of "accidentally" failing to file some forms. This was an effort to expand influence by being a "money-man" those close to President Bush and other politicians could count on.
Second, the "conduits" involved also knew the campaign donation limitations. They knew they were channeling money from Noe into the Bush campaign (and perhaps others). They were willing collaborators with Noe. Without them, Noe couldn't have pulled off his plan.
Prosecutors have a hard time proving some of these cases because you can always say something like "Noe only loaned me the money" or this was a "payment for services." You then get into tax issues and the like - potentially a long legal trail to walk. Prosecutors, seeking resolution to this part of the case - and really aiming at the "big fish," Noe - looked for lesser violations they could get the accused conduits to plea to. The meals and financial disclosures do indeed seem like small potatoes, but it was the threat of more serious criminal prosecutions which brought about cooperation from the conduits as the investigators built their case against Noe.
Maggie and the other accused "conduits," if they wished to maintain integrity, needed to refuse the plea deals and fight the accusations. Plea bargaining down to a minor violation may not mean they are "guilty" of the larger crime in the technical sense, but they are "convicted" of being Noe's assistants in crime in the court of public opinion, upon which politics is based. That's the choice Maggie and the others made when they pleaded no contest. I think the only intellectually honest result of that choice (as Matt thoughtfully argues) is the immediate resignation of those presently holding public office.