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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It is a historic fall from grace. Former U.S. Senator John Edwards has been indicted on campaign finance charges. Just three years ago, Edwards was in the running for the Democratic nomination to become president of the United States. But behind the scenes, prosecutors say he was racing to solicit money from donors to support his mistress and their baby.

NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON: With six felony charges, the Justice Department turned the former senator's private misconduct into a very public criminal case, building the indictment on notes from campaign donors and damning grand jury testimony from aides once close to John Edwards. Edwards' legal team says the case is unprecedented, and they've got plenty of support for that idea.

Mr. KELLY KRAMER (Lawyer): I've never seen a campaign finance case that's based on an allegation that a candidate is covering up an affair.

JOHNSON: That's Kelly Kramer. He's a lawyer in Washington who represents members of Congress in criminal investigations.

Mr. KRAMER: And I think that the prosecutors must have been offended at some of the conduct that they saw here.

JOHNSON: Offended by Edwards' affair with a woman who shot video footage of his presidential campaign, getting her pregnant and then desperately trying to keep it a secret from voters and his family.

Jan Baran advises political candidates. He says the Edwards case is unusual for another reason.

Mr. JAN BARAN (Lawyer): Almost always the candidates are not aware of the illegal nature of the donations and therefore are not the subject of prosecutions.

JOHNSON: 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 lifestyle. In those sessions, prosecutors say Edwards settled on two people: a prominent Democratic lawyer and an heiress, Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.

In the months that followed, those two supporters gave nearly $1 million, far in excess of the legal limit on campaign donations. The money went to Edwards' aide and his wife to pass on to the senator's mistress.

One donor enclosed a personal note that read: Old Chinese proverb: use cash not credit cards.

And Mellon scribbled that her checks were for chairs, a bookcase or an antique table, allegedly trying to disguise the money as a personal gift, not a political donation.

Again, attorney Jan Baran.

Mr. BARAN: If they're trying to hide something, 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?

JOHNSON: The Justice Department calls that consciousness of guilt, and it will be important in a case that turns on the intentions 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.

Edwards says he's innocent.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, South Carolina): I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I've caused to others. But I did not break the law, and I never ever thought that I was breaking the law.

JOHNSON: Republican election lawyer Elliot Berke says the former senator might have public opinion on his side.

Mr. ELLIOT BERKE (Lawyer): A lot of folks are going to look at this and say, why isn't this simply, you know, a matter that should be before the Federal Election Commission? Why is a criminal case being brought in this matter?

JOHNSON: It will take a while for that case to reach trial if it ever does. One of the two donors in the case has died. The other is 100 years old. So Edwards will be on his own, facing testimony from former aide Andrew Young. Young has offered conflicting accounts about the money. Edwards, a former high-stakes trial lawyer, may be gambling that he can persuade a jury once more - this time, with his own freedom on the line.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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