Journalism in the Public Interest

John Edwards Cheat Sheet: What Are the Facts, and Do They Make Him a Criminal?


Following his indictment by a federal grand jury, John Edwards speaks to a crowd of reporters outside the courthouse on June 3, 2011, in Winston Salem, N.C. (Steve Exum/Getty Images)

First, a sex scandal, followed by a messy cover-up and an even messier fessing-up. The sequence has become all but routine in Washington.

But the criminal case against two-time Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is anything but run-of-the-mill. While campaign finance experts may not agree on whether the charges are merited, they seem to uniformly acknowledge that the charges against Edwards are unprecedented. Here’s a quick look at why, drawing from the prosecution's indictment, the defense's expert witnesses and what's been reported. 

What are the charges against Edwards, exactly?
The government lays out its case in a federal grand jury indictment, which you can read in its entirety. Essentially, Edwards is charged with violating campaign-finance law for accepting large sums of money from two wealthy supporters. The money went to concealing Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, from his wife and from the American electorate, the government alleges.

At issue here is whether the nearly $1 million in funds from longtime Edwards supporters Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and now-deceased Fred Baron were in fact campaign contributions. If they were, as the government alleges, the donations would violate both disclosure laws and contribution limits. The government also has to prove that Edwards knew about the payments. 

Edwards pleaded not guilty. He said he has personal regrets but never broke the law.

So what constitutes a campaign contribution?
By law, a campaign contribution is “any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made by any person for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.”

The indictment explains it this way:

Anything of value provided for the purpose of influencing the presidential election, including (a) contributions to a candidate and his/her campaign; (b) expenditures made in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with, or at the request of suggestion of, a candidate or his/her campaign; and (c) payments for personal expenses of a candidate unless they would have been made irrespective of the candidacy.

Ah, so the question is whether the money was meant to influence the campaign, right?
Yes, and we'll see what the court decides. But it almost goes without saying that a sex scandal and lovechild splashed in the headlines would have hurt—if not derailed—Edwards’ campaign. 

Edwards’ legal team has reportedly countered that the money was merely intended to hide the affair from Edwards’ cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and it had nothing to do with his protecting his campaign. 

Prosecutors evidently aren’t buying that the payments were just to protect Edwards’ marriage. In the first paragraph of the 19-page indictment, prosecutors argued that Edwards’ “public image as a devoted family man” was a centerpiece of his candidacy, and that cultivating and publicizing that image was part of the campaign’s communication strategy for electoral success.

Also worth noting: Edwards once told ABC News that he had spoken with Elizabeth about his infidelity in 2006, and yet the hush-money was paid out in 2007 and 2008.

The government’s case also leans on a 2000 advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission in which a donor tried to give $10,000 in funds to candidates on the condition that the money was to “be used solely for personal expenses,” and not for campaign purposes, according to the News & Observer. The donor’s reasoning was that he wanted to “express deep appreciation” to the candidate for giving up private sector opportunities to pursue public service. The FEC said no, ruling that personal donations are only permissible if they would have been made “irrespective of the candidacy."

Is there specific evidence tying the donations to Edwards’ candidacy?
In the indictment, prosecutors point to a note between donor Rachel Mellon and Edwards’ aide Andrew Young. Around that time, Edwards and Young had been discussing individuals who could support Edwards’ mistress, who was pregnant with his child, according to the indictment. Young apparently gave Mellon a call. Here’s what she told Young, emphasis ours:

The timing of your telephone call on Friday was “witchy.” I was 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.

Mellon had by that time already contributed the most she could legally contribute to his campaign, but proceeded to write $725,000 in personal checks that ultimately went to Hunter’s living and medical expenses, the indictment alleged. The memo lines of the checks indicated they were for furniture items—“chairs,” “antique Charleston table,” “book case.” (Mellon’s legal team told the New York Times that the money was a personal gift, and she didn’t know how Edwards used it.)

Edwards also accepted more than $200,000 from Baron, his former campaign finance chairman, which went to Hunter’s travel and accommodations. (Some of the facts here are contradictory: After news of the Edwards-Hunter affair broke, Baron said he sent money to keep Hunter out of the media but he did so without Edwards' knowledge. Along with denying paternity of Hunter’s child, Edwards said publicly in 2008 that “had no knowledge of any money being paid.” However, AP reported yesterday that prosecutors have notes between Edwards and a campaign writer that show Edwards acknowledging he knew about Baron’s payments—though he said he didn’t ask for them.) 

Neither Mellon nor Baron are named in the indictment, but are listed as Person C and Person D, respectively.

So, why are legal experts skeptical of the government’s case?
First, nobody can recall a similar case. And the lack of a clearly applicable legal precedent makes it risky. 

Plus, the standard of proof for a criminal case is higher than for a civil case. U.C. Irvine law professor and campaign finance expert Richard Hasen, who wrote a good piece for Slate on the Edwards ordeal, wrote on his election law blog on Monday: “The law is murky and the facts are murky, and it is going to be very hard to prove in a criminal prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt that Edwards willfully violated clear law.”

Both sides have sought experts to bolster their interpretations of the law. Politico reported that the prosecution has been seeking out former FEC commissioners to testify and has had at least one decline because the case “seems somewhat of a stretch.”

The Edwards legal team has retained two expert witnesses. One, former FEC chairman Scott Thomas, said it was his view that the payments “would not be considered to be either campaign contributions or campaign expenditures” according to campaign finance law, and that the government’s understanding of the law was incorrect. “A criminal prosecution of a candidate on these facts,” Thomas wrote, “would be outside anything I would expect after decades of experience with the campaign finance laws.”

What’s at stake for Edwards—and for the Justice Department?
If found guilty of the government’s charges, the already-disgraced Edwards would lose his law license and could face a maximum of five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine on each of the indictment’s six counts.

For the government, the case could mean a step toward redemption—or yet another high-profile failure—for the same Justice Department unit that in 2008 botched the politically charged prosecution of the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. 

I don’t approve of Edwards’ conduct, but this smacks of a really skimpy criminal case in spite of the tawdry details.

I don’t approve of Edwards manipulations but a gift is a gift if the giver says it is.

Connie Mack Kuhl

June 7, 2011, 3:03 p.m.

Does anyone really think this is not politically biased?  I know, I Know - the State Department is allegedly run by the President’s party right now. 

But Really…?

I am an extremely disappointed former Edwards supporter and furious about this whole situation.  That said, if I were on a jury, I’d consider this money a gift, not a campaign contribution.  To charge Edwards with election law violations, as the law is written, is really a stretch.  Edwards, for example, clearly had the financial resources to pay off Hunter and apparently gift taxes were paid so what’s the problem? 

Beyond that, I’d rather the federal government devote its resources to fighting contractor fraud, tracking down & appropriately punishing all the parties responsible for the financial meltdown, and large scale tax evasion, among other crimes.  Prosecuting this case is a waste of resources.  If the federal government needs a pound of flesh, just make certain that gift taxes were fully paid .... if not, charge penalties & interest and be done with it.

Just because there has never been a case similar to this one doesn’t mean that Justice should not bring it.  (There was probably a first case involving privacy or publicity - just because it is new doesn’t mean that it is off-base).

Also, considering how badly the case against Sen. Stevens went, one would imagine that Justice would be rather circumspect about bringing the suit.  The government has a star witness - the Edwards campaign aid who claimed that the child was his.  Perhaps his testimony will be the key to the case (which we might want to hear before coming to a conclusion).

connie mack, I believe that every move the government makes is completely political.  As far as this president goes, he really doesn’t show me too much of anything.  Oh, he can sing like an angel and is slicker than a snake oil salesman, but his record is a crap sandwitch without mayo.  I worshiped him from 2004 until well after the election and even after he had put all of the blue dogs and repigs in his cabinet, I was willing to cut him some slack.  Today, sorry, no ticket, no laundry!  Justice isn’t served by allowing war criminals to walk around free, and by his apparent support of the Wall street thugs and the other very wealthy people and corporations that seem to wag this dog today. 

Perhaps when the smoke clears and sanity returns, we may find some truly honest people willing to uphold the Constitution and Bill of Rights and to make all these people and corporations truly accountable for all the wrongs they have caused to us all..  I am not talking about just the USA, I am talking about the whole world…

Criminal? I think that will be very difficult to prove. Edwards is an attorney himself and will surely hire the best legal team that a $400 haircut can buy. Embarrassing? Absolutely. The hypocrisy transcends the “D” and “R” attachment to a name.

It was really nice to read this: one of the most thoughtful and simple explanations of a complex issue. 

Three questions arise after reading this:

1.  Because prosecutors have the email related to the paying of “haircuts”, will that translate to a jury believing that was the Mellon’s intention regarding her later payments?

2.  Why didn’t Edwards just pay for everything out of his personal pocket?

3.  If he had done so, wouldn’t it have been near impossible for charges to be brought against him?

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