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John Edwards Affair Leads To Federal Indictment

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.

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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.