Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has insisted that he broke no laws when he hid his pregnant mistress while seeking the nomination in 2008. Now, he’s made that position official, pleading not guilty to federal criminal charges that he accepted nearly $1 million from two supporters to fund the deception.
On Friday, a federal grand jury indicted Edwards, 57, on six counts of violating campaign finance laws, lying to the government and conspiring to protect his candidacy by breaking the law.
The case against Edwards could rise or fall on whether the government is reaching too far and trying to hold Edwards to a higher election law standard than usual. Notably, the first paragraph of the 19-page indictment said that a “centerpiece” of Edwards candidacy in 2008 was “his public image as a devoted family man” and that he often stressed to voters that “family comes first.”
The government maintains that by accepting money to keep his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and eventually their daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, out of sight, he was trying to maintain the viability of his candidacy. Therefore, the government said, the money constituted undeclared campaign contributions.
The indictment, and Edwards’ plea, are the latest episodes in an all-too-familiar story of a political and personal implosion. But the details — the lies about who fathered the child, the extent of the cover-up, and the illness and subsequent death of Edwards’ wife — lend an especially sordid air to Edwards’ fall. If Edwards does not reach a deal with prosecutors, he will go to trial — and his disgrace will continue to be played out in a most public arena.
“There is no question that I have done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong,” the former North Carolina senator told a throng of reporters Friday afternoon after emerging from the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others. But I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law. Thank you all very much.”
Edwards, whose daughter Cate, 29, stood behind him, did not take questions. Nor did he mention his wife, Elizabeth, who had incurable cancer when he began his affair. She died in December.
It is unclear what penalties Edwards might face if convicted, although the maximum for each count is five years, plus a $250,000 fine.
“As this indictment shows,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Lanny A. Breuer in a statement, “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 law.”
Edwards’s attorney, former White House counsel Gregory Craig, called the prosecution “unprecedented.”
“No one has ever been charged, either civilly or criminally, with the claims that have been brought against Sen. Edwards today,” Craig, who managed President Clinton’s impeachment defense, said upon his arrival at the courthouse. “No one would have known, or should have known, or could have been expected to know, that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions. And there was no way Sen. Edwards knew that fact either.”
According to the indictment, the result of a grand jury investigation that lasted more than two years, Edwards solicited and accepted approximately $725,000 from Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the 100-year-old banking heiress who is identified as “Person B,” and more than $200,000 from the late Fred Baron, his national campaign finance chairman, identified as “Person D.” Edwards, the indictment said, “failed to disclose these illegal contributions” to the Federal Election Commission.
Edwards’ former aide, Andrew Young, was a key witness. He helped solicit the money, falsely claimed he was the father of Hunter’s child, took his wife and three children into hiding with Hunter, and ultimately became an object of derision for his role.
Young was blamed for the scandal by Elizabeth Edwards. In a telephone interview in March 2010, as she wrote a new epilogue for her book “Resilience,” Elizabeth Edwards said she believed that Young had orchestrated the cover-up, and had approached Mellon for the money. “I don’t think they will indict anybody,” she said. “I don’t think there was a criminal offense here, unless it’s fraud against Bunny Mellon.”
She said her husband continued to maintain that he had had a one-night stand with Hunter and did not admit he fathered Quinn, now 3, until the couple was in therapy in summer 2009. The Edwardses separated in January 2010, days after John Edwards admitted publicly that he was the child’s father.
Two months later, Elizabeth Edwards said she was still angry with her husband, but added, “I am completely at peace.”
On Friday, Young’s attorney, David Geneson, said that Young feels “vindicated.”
Last year, Young wrote a book about the Edwards scandal, “The Politician.” The indictment mirrors the tale he told. “The story is accurate,” Geneson said. “The government has corroborated it.” (In a separate case that is pending, Young is being sued for privacy invasion by Hunter, who is demanding the return of a purported sex tape she made with Edwards.)
Geneson said Young made no deal with the government but has been promised in writing that, if he continues to cooperate, he will not be prosecuted.
Mellon first began giving money to Edwards in spring 2007, when the presidential campaign was in full swing. She was upset that he was being criticized for two $400 haircuts — and at that point she decided to give money that would not be reported on his federal disclosure forms.
“From now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign,” she wrote in a note to Young, “please send the bills to me.... It is a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”
Baron, who died in October 2008, paid for at least five chartered planes to whisk Hunter and the Youngs from Florida to Aspen, Colo., (where, Young wrote in his book, they stayed at Baron’s ski chalet), San Diego and Santa Barbara. He spent nearly $20,000 on hotels in Hollywood, Fla., and San Diego, and more than $58,000 on rent for a Santa Barbara mansion.
The case’s merits
Several experts in election law said they did not know of any case in which prosecutors brought criminal charges against a candidate for using money from a wealthy contributor to hide a personal matter. Normally such violations are handled as civil penalties and result in fines and requirements for the candidates to repay the money.
Six weeks ago, Scott E. Thomas, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, met quietly with prosecutors on Edwards’ behalf to persuade them not to seek criminal charges.
“I do not believe that there is any prior case that states that the conduct at issue in the Edwards matter, or even conduct substantially similar to it, constituted a violation of the statute,” Thomas said.
Others familiar with election law agreed.
“This is a real stretch,” said Michael Toner, a former FEC chairman. “And I say that as a Republican who is no fan of John Edwards.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit legal watchdog, predicted the government would encounter serious problems if the case goes to trial.
Although Edwards’ conduct was “despicable,” she said, “that alone does not provide solid grounds for a criminal case.”
But other election law experts believe the government’s case may be sound.
If prosecutors can show that Edwards conspired to receive donations that he wouldn’t have to report and that false reports were filed under his signature, they may be able to show a “fairly straightforward conspiracy,” said Matt Miner, a former chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Federal prosecutors,” he said, “clearly took their time in building this case and developing a record before the grand jury.”
David Savage in Washington contributed to this report.