Friday, June 3, 2011

John Edwards indicted in affair coverup

WASHINGTON — A federal grand jury Friday indicted former North Carolina senator John Edwards for violating election laws by accepting nearly $1 million from supporters to cover up an extramarital affair during his 2008 presidential campaign.

2007 file photo by Eric Thayer, Getty Images

The former presidential candidate was indicted on felony charges stemming from an affair coverup.

2007 file photo by Eric Thayer, Getty Images

The former presidential candidate was indicted on felony charges stemming from an affair coverup.
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The six-count indictment page caps a two-year investigation and represents a stunning fall for the man who rose from modest beginnings as the son of a mill worker to become the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee in 2004. Prosecutors also issued a warrant for his arrest.

If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy charge. He faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count of accepting and receiving illegal campaign contributions and a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the charge of concealing the alleged illegal donations.

The case centers on whether money from two of his wealthy supporters used to conceal the affair and Edwards' out-of-wedlock daughter amounted to illegal campaign contributions because they helped advance his presidential ambitions.
MORE: Transcript of Edwards' indictment

Under federal law, individuals could not contribute more than $4,600 to a presidential candidate in the 2008 election and no more than $25,000 in total to candidates and party committees.

In the 19-page indictment, federal prosecutors say Edwards, 57, accepted more than $925,000 from wealthy benefactors to conceal the affair and "protect and advance" his presidential campaign.

"Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards' presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy," the indictment says.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer on Friday denounced Edwards' "scheme."

"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 laws," he said in a statement. "Our campaign finance system is designed to preserve the integrity of democratic elections — for the presidency and all other elected offices — and we will vigorously pursue abuses of the kind alleged today."

He is charged with one count of conspiracy, four counts of accepting illegal contributions and one count of making false statements by not disclosing the payments in federal campaign-finance reports.

"John Edwards will tell the court he is innocent of all charges and will plead not guilty. He did not break the law and will mount a vigorous defense," Edwards' lawyer Gregory Craig said Friday.

Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, worked as a campaign videographer. Their daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, was born in February 2008, several weeks after he ended his White House bid.

He initially denied having the affair, but in the summer of 2008 admitted to a relationship with Hunter. Last year, he acknowledged fathering her child, just days before the release of a tell-all book by ex-campaign aide Andrew Young.

Young, who had initially claimed paternity to protect his boss, has said Edwards solicited money from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the 100-year-old widow of banking heir Paul Mellon, to hide the affair. Young said Mellon sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to him, funneled through her decorator and sometimes concealed in boxes of chocolates.

"This was the arrangement the senator expected me to follow, so that he would have plausible deniability," Young wrote in his memoir, The Politician.

Mellon's lawyers have said she viewed the money as gifts and did not know where it was going.

Young said he used the money from Mellon and Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer who chaired Edwards' fundraising committee, to hide Hunter first in North Carolina, then at Baron's Aspen, Colo., vacation home and, later, at a Santa Barbara, Calif., mansion as The National Enquirer and other media outlets pursued the story.

In an August 2008 interview days after Edwards' acknowledged the affair, Baron told USA TODAY that he paid for Hunter to relocate to California and made monthly payments for her house.

Baron, who died in October 2008, said he acted on his own. "I never talked to John Edwards about it," he said.

In his book, Young claimed Edwards knew of Baron's help.

Reports of an imminent Edwards' indictment have swirled through Washington and North Carolina in recent days. Last week, Craig said prosecutors were pursuing an "untested" theory in their case.

"John Edwards has done wrong in his life, and he knows it better than anyone, but he did not break the law," Craig said in a statement.

Campaign-finance experts say the case would break new ground and could prove difficult for prosecutors. "I don't think there's been a criminal case with similar facts brought by the Department of Justice," said Jan Baran, a veteran Republican ethics lawyer.

Meredith McGehee, a campaign-finance expert at the Campaign Legal Center, said large payments of "hush money" to aid a politician violate the goal of campaign-finance laws that seek to prevent special interests from having undue sway in elections. "I don't think most Americans want their politicians beholden to rich individuals," she said.

Edwards rose to prominence as one of North Carolina's top trial lawyers before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, his first political office. He twice ran for the presidency — first in 2004, when eventual nominee John Kerry selected him as his running mate, and again in 2008. He campaigned as a fighter for the disadvantaged who would work to end poverty and to provide health care for all.

Before the scandal that ended his political career, his life had been marked by tragedy. His son, Wade, died in a car accident in 1996 at age 16.

The day after the 2004 election, Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, learned she had breast cancer. Three years later, as,to continue:

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