WASHINGTON — 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 has 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 baby, Frances Quinn Hunter, out of sight, he was trying to maintain the viability of his candidacy. Therefore, said the government, 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 deceptions 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 plea 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 and vice presidential nominee told a throng of reporters on Friday afternoon after emerging from the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem. “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.”
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, and died in December.
It is unclear what penalties Edwards might face if convicted.
“As this indictment shows,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General 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 Senator Edwards today,” Craig, who managed President Bill 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 Senator 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, said the indictment, “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. “I don’t think they will indict anybody,” she said. “I don’t there was a criminal offense here, unless it’s a fraud against Bunny Mellon.”
She said her husband continued to maintain he had had a one-night stand with Hunter and did not admit he fathered her child, now 3, until the couple were in therapy in summer 2009. The Edwardses separated in January 2010, days after Edwards admitted publicly that he had fathered a child with Hunter.
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.”
Mellon first began giving money to Edwards in the spring of 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.
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.
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.”
Robin Abcarian reported from Los Angeles, Richard A. Serrano from Washington. David G. Savage contributed to this report.