Former Democratic Senator and vice-presidential nominee John Edwards was formally indicted yesterday on charges that he violated federal campaign finance laws by “secretly obtaining and using” contributions to conceal his mistress and their baby while he was running for president in 2008.
The grant jury has been investigating Edwards for two years now and handed down a six-count indictment. One count was for conspiracy, four related illegal payments and one involved false statements. If found guilty, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.
The indictment alleges that Edwards and his co-conspirators solicited $725,000 from Rachel Mellon, the 100-year-old heiress to the Mellon banking fortune, and $200,000 from Fred Baron, Edwards’s campaign finance chairman. The money was allegedly used to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter and to pay for her prenatal medical expenses, travel and accommodations.
But unlike most political scandals, the crime for Edwards was not that he covered up the affair. Instead, the Justice Department says those contributions were campaign donations and therefore subject to federal campaign finance laws that set limits on the amount that can be donated and received and are subject to disclosure.
For the government to prove its case it will need to show the money was used for campaign purposes. According to the Department of Justice, if the public knew he was having an affair, his campaign would have been over. Their case will have some challenges. Edwards campaign was over in January 2008, well before he confessed to the affair in August and after he lost multiple primaries to both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. But, the Justice Department says, it might have imploded earlier if the affair had been exposed.
Edwards entered in a plea of “not guilty”. Absent a settlement agreement with prosecutors, Edwards will now face a trial that will undoubtedly turn into a media frenzy as all the tacky details of his affair get aired as evidence. Right now that trial is set to begin July 11 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, though as both sides continue to pursue settlement the start of the trial is likely to be delayed.
Edwards insists that his actions did not violate campaign finance laws. Edwards again apologized for his actions but maintained the money was not used to hide the affair from the public but to conceal it from his wife, Elizabeth.
The Justice Department is seeking a pretty broad definition of campaign contributions here, one reason Edwards is fighting the indictment. Another is to salvage his law license which he would lose if convicted.
But given the damage done by the Citizens United decision and an overall public distaste for anything that can be viewed as influence-peddling in Washington, the Justice Department really had no choice but to pursue these charges. And Edwards, a skilled trial attorney with a top-notch defense team already in place will make the government press its case. Should there be a trial any verdict will likely face appeal and could ultimately come before the Supreme Court as the government seeks to reign in campaign financing excess.
So Edwards may very well make history in the law, just not the way he imagined.
photo courtesy of alexdecarvalho via Flickr