John Edwards Affair Leads To Federal Indictment

  • Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards signs autographs after speaking to supporters outside his Las Vegas campaign headquarters on Jan. 18, 2008.
    Hide caption
    Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards signs autographs after speaking to supporters outside his Las Vegas campaign headquarters on Jan. 18, 2008.
    Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images
  • Edwards began his relationship with Rielle Hunter in 2006, just as he was plotting a second run for president. She was hired to shoot behind-the-scenes video.
    Hide caption
    Edwards began his relationship with Rielle Hunter in 2006, just as he was plotting a second run for president. She was hired to shoot behind-the-scenes video.
    Jim Bounds/AP
  • On Jan. 30, 2008, Edwards pulled out of the presidential race. He was joined by his wife Elizabeth (R) and children Emma Claire, Jack and Cate  in the Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
    Hide caption
    On Jan. 30, 2008, Edwards pulled out of the presidential race. He was joined by his wife Elizabeth (R) and children Emma Claire, Jack and Cate in the Upper Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
    Matthew Hinton/AFP/Getty Images
  • Edwards joined Barack Obama for the ABC/Facebook New Hampshire debates in Manchester, N.H., on Jan. 5, 2008.
    Hide caption
    Edwards joined Barack Obama for the ABC/Facebook New Hampshire debates in Manchester, N.H., on Jan. 5, 2008.
    Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
  • John and Elizabeth Edwards gathered the media on March 22, 2007 to announce that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had returned – but that the quest for the presidency would continue.
    Hide caption
    John and Elizabeth Edwards gathered the media on March 22, 2007 to announce that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had returned – but that the quest for the presidency would continue.
    Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
  • During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Edwards worked in the backyard of his home in Raleigh, N.C., while awaiting his upcoming speech to the Democratic National Convention.
    Hide caption
    During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Edwards worked in the backyard of his home in Raleigh, N.C., while awaiting his upcoming speech to the Democratic National Convention.
    Karen Tam/AP
  • Teresa Heinz Kerry and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts join John and Elizabeth Edwards to embark on a cross-country train trip. They set off from St. Louis on Aug. 5, 2004.
    Hide caption
    Teresa Heinz Kerry and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts join John and Elizabeth Edwards to embark on a cross-country train trip. They set off from St. Louis on Aug. 5, 2004.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Lunch at a Wendy's fast food restaurant was a wedding anniversary tradition for the Edwards. Here they celebrated their 27th on July 30, 2004 in Newburgh, N.Y.
    Hide caption
    Lunch at a Wendy's fast food restaurant was a wedding anniversary tradition for the Edwards. Here they celebrated their 27th on July 30, 2004 in Newburgh, N.Y.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Edwards, hot on the campaign trail, greets supporters during a rally July 9, 2004 in Albuquerque, N.M.
    Hide caption
    Edwards, hot on the campaign trail, greets supporters during a rally July 9, 2004 in Albuquerque, N.M.
    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Then-Sen. Edwards dined with sailors from North Carolina aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, Jan. 9, 2002.
    Hide caption
    Then-Sen. Edwards dined with sailors from North Carolina aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Arabian Sea, Jan. 9, 2002.
    Brad Garner/AP Photo/US Navy
  • From left, U.S. Senators Mike DeWine, R-OH, Arlen Specter, R-PA, John Edwards, D-NC, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and Christopher Dodd, D-CT meet with reporters.
    Hide caption
    From left, U.S. Senators Mike DeWine, R-OH, Arlen Specter, R-PA, John Edwards, D-NC, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and Christopher Dodd, D-CT meet with reporters.
    Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
  • Edwards poses with his eldest son, Lucius "Wade" Edwards, on Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro in 1995. Less than a year after the  trek, Wade died. Wade had encouraged his father to go into politics.
    Hide caption
    Edwards poses with his eldest son, Lucius "Wade" Edwards, on Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro in 1995. Less than a year after the trek, Wade died. Wade had encouraged his father to go into politics.
    Edwards Family/AP
  • John and Elizabeth Edwards were married on July 30, 1977. She died of cancer on Dec. 7, 2010.
    Hide caption
    John and Elizabeth Edwards were married on July 30, 1977. She died of cancer on Dec. 7, 2010.
    Edwards Family/AP Photo

1 of 13

View slideshow i

Former Sen. John Edwards pleaded not guilty on Friday after he was named in a six-count indictment on campaign finance charges. It's a highly unusual case stemming from an extramarital affair.

Prosecutors say three years ago, while he was running for the Democratic nomination for president, he was soliciting hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors to support his mistress Rielle Hunter and their baby.

A federal grand jury has handed up a six-count indictment based on the contention that the money was covered under campaign finance laws, and should have been officially disclosed.

The Justice Department contends the donations from two wealthy supporters were intended to benefit the campaign because they helped Edwards maintain his family-man image.

That theory is controversial.

Read The Indictment

"This is totally novel," says Kelly Kramer, a lawyer in Washington who represents members of Congress in criminal investigations. "I've never seen a campaign finance case that's based on an allegation that a candidate's covering up an affair."

Kramer says the "prosecutors must have been offended by some of the conduct they saw here." That might include having an affair with a woman who shot video footage of the Edwards campaign, getting her pregnant and keeping the secret from both his wife and the voters.

Rielle Hunter, pictured in August 2009. i i

Rielle Hunter, pictured in August 2009. Jim R. Bounds/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Jim R. Bounds/AP
Rielle Hunter, pictured in August 2009.

Rielle Hunter, pictured in August 2009.

Jim R. Bounds/AP

Attorney Jan Baran, who advises candidates on campaign finance law, says the case is unusual because "almost always the candidates are not aware of the illegal nature of the donations and therefore are not the subject of prosecutions."

Prosecutors say Edwards not only knew about the plan to send money to his mistress but that he brainstormed with aides to figure out who might pay for her private airplanes and luxury hotels.

They settled on two people: personal injury lawyer Fred Baron and banking heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.

Altogether, those two supporters sent nearly $1 million to an Edwards aide and his wife to pass on to the senator's mistress.

Baron enclosed a personal note that read, "Old Chinese proverb: use cash not credit cards."

Mellon allegedly scribbled that her checks were for chairs, a book case, or an antique table — not illicit payments to cover for her favorite politician.

"If they're trying to hide something," says Baran, "one would have to ask, why are they doing it that way? Are they doing it because they're trying to hide it from an accountant or hide it from a spouse or hide it from law enforcement authorities?"

The Justice Department calls it consciousness of guilt.

And it'll be important in a case that turns on what was in the mind of the candidate and the donors.

The key question: whether the money was a personal gift — or a life raft to keep the Edwards campaign afloat.

At the courthouse in Winston-Salem, N.C. on Friday, a judge released Edwards after asking him to turn over his passport for safekeeping. The judge also ordered Edwards not to contact Mellon, whose home he visited days before the indictment.

Later, Edwards told reporters that his conduct was wrong, but not illegal.

He's getting some support from unexpected circles, including Republican election lawyer Elliot Berke.

"A lot of folks are going to look at this and say, why isn't this simply a matter that should be before the Federal Election Commission," asks Berke. "Why is a criminal case being brought in this matter?"

The indictment was announced after negotiations between the Justice Department and Edwards on a possible charge to which he would agree to plead guilty broke down. One source close to the talks said prosecutors wanted Edwards to plead to a felony count, which might have carried prison time and resulted in the loss of his license to practice law.

Unfortunately for Edwards, he's the last man standing.

His friend Fred Baron died in 2008. Bunny Mellon is 100 years old.

That leaves Edwards on his own, to face off against former aide Andrew Young.

Young ultimately turned against Edwards and has offered conflicting accounts about the money.

Edwards, a former high-stakes trial lawyer, may be gambling that he can persuade a jury in the ultimate contest, with his freedom on the line. He could be sentenced to five years in prison if convicted.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.