WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — 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. He made that position official Friday by pleading not guilty to federal criminal charges that he accepted nearly $1 million from two supporters to fund the deception.
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.
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' daughter Cate, 29, stood behind him. He did not take questions, nor did he mention his wife, Elizabeth, who had incurable cancer when he began his affair. She died in December.
"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."
The trial is scheduled to begin July 11 in Winston-Salem, but lawyers involved said they expected it would start much later.
Edwards' 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," said Craig, who managed President Bill Clinton's impeachment defense. "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 about $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 "failed to disclose these illegal contributions" to the Federal Election Commission, the indictment says.
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.
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. 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., 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 that result in fines.
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 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 clearly took their time in building this case and developing a record before the grand jury," he said.