John Edwards, the former Democratic senator from North Carolina, pleaded not guilty to charges that he conspired to cover up an extramarital affair while running for president in 2008 by “secretly obtaining,” misusing and misreporting certain campaign contributions in violation of federal law.
He entered his plea at the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem on Friday afternoon, setting the stage for a trial to begin July 11. When the judge read him his list of rights, including the right to remain silent, Mr. Edwards, who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004 and twice a candidate for president, said: “Your honour, I’m an attorney. I’m aware of that.”
Later, outside the courthouse, Mr. Edwards told reporters he had behaved badly but insisted he had not committed a crime. “I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I’ve caused to others,” he said. “But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.”
The indictment handed up earlier Friday in Greensboro charged that Mr. Edwards, 57, conspired to use illegal campaign contributions to conceal his affair with his mistress for political reasons. The grand jury, which has been investigating the case for two years, indicted Mr. Edwards on six counts — one involving conspiracy, four involving illegal payments, and one involving false statements. If he is found guilty, Mr. Edwards faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Mr. Edwards rejected a chance to make a plea bargain with the Justice Department, and he and lawyers plan “a vigorous defense,” said Greg Craig, one of his lawyers, a prominent Washington attorney who helped defend President Clinton during his impeachment proceedings. The defense is likely to become rather messy as the Edwards team acknowledges that he tried to conceal the affair but argues that he did not do so for the political purpose of maintaining his candidacy, as the government alleges. Rather, Mr. Edwards argues that he was trying to conceal it for personal reasons — to hide it from his wife.
Whether he used the money for political or personal purposes is at the heart of the case. If the purpose was political, as the Justice Department says, the money was subject to federal campaign finance laws that set limits on the amount that can be donated and received, and requires public reporting. The indictment says Mr. Edwards and his co-conspirators solicited $725,000 from Rachel Mellon, the now-century-old heiress to the Mellon banking fortune, and $200,000 from Fred Baron, Mr. Edwards’s campaign finance chairman. Both amounts, it says, were well in excess of the limit of $2,300 that an individual can give.
According to the indictment, the money went to hide Rielle Hunter, Mr. Edwards’s mistress and the mother of his child, from the news media and to pay for her pre-natal medical expenses, travel and accommodations. “A centrepiece of Edwards’s candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man,” the indictment said; public knowledge of the affair would have destroyed his campaign and so the attempts to hide it were clearly motivated by political concerns. “Mr. Edwards is alleged to have accepted more than $900,000 in an effort to conceal from the public facts that he believed would harm his candidacy,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a statement. ”As this indictment shows, 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.”
The decision to fight the charges reflects confidence by Mr. Edwards and his legal team that the government’s case would not hold up in court, according to his lawyers. It also reflects the strong feeling by Mr. Edwards that no matter how much he has disgraced himself — by lying to his wife and to the country about an extramarital affair, which wrecked his marriage and ended his political career — he does not want to be seen as a felon or lose his law license. The matter is likely to turn on a relatively arcane and untested aspect of campaign finance law about which contributions are subject to federal regulation.
The defense team said it had retained Scott E. Thomas, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, as an expert witness. In a statement, Mr. Thomas said the government was basing its case on a “novel and misguided theory” that had no precedent. He said he would not consider the payments in question to be campaign contributions or expenditures within the meaning of the campaign finance laws. But the Justice Department said that the contribution limit “applies to anything of value provided for the purpose of influencing a federal election,” including contributions, expenditures and “payments for personal expenses of a candidate unless those payments would have been made irrespective of his/her candidacy.”
The indictment included the transcript of a note that Mrs Mellon sent to Andrew Young, a former aide to Mr. Edwards, in May 2007. She said she had been “sitting alone in a grim mood — furious that the press attacked Senator Edwards on the price of a haircut. But it inspired me — from now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign — please send the bills to me. … It is a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”
Some legal experts view the case as weak. Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said that while Mr. Edwards’s conduct was “despicable and deserves society’s condemnation,” the charges against him were flimsy. The case rests on proving that the payments were in fact campaign contributions, but, she noted, “no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly.”
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Centre, said in a statement that the charges were “deeply disturbing. “The alleged payments of ‘hush money’ raise the spectre of political influence-peddling in the form of ‘gifts’ to candidates in high-stakes campaigns,” she said. Not to pursue them, she said, would set a dangerous precedent.