John Edwards, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination and a former U.S. senator from North Carolina, was indicted today on charges of conspiracy and false statements and campaign law violations.
The indictment is the culmination of a secretive federal probe that has been going on for more than two years.
The investigation has centered on allegations that donations to Edwards were used to support Rielle Hunter, his former mistress and mother of his now-3-year-old daughter.
The indictment charges that Edwards led a conspiracy with four others, labeled as Persons A, B, C and D, but clearly identifiable as former staffer Andrew Young (Person A), mistress Hunter (Person B), multimillionaire heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon (Person C), and Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron (Person D.)
The purpose of the conspiracy was to protect Edwards' self-proclaimed public image as a family man by keeping secret his extramarital affair with Hunter, the indictment said.
“Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards' presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his camping to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny,” according to the 19-page indictment.
In May 2007, Edwards and Young discussed people whom they could ask to financially support Hunter, who was pregnant, the indictment alleges.
About that time, Young read a note that Mellon had sent to Edwards: “The timing of your phone 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.”
Over the next eight months, Mellon sent checks totalling $725,000 through a friend to Young, whose wife cashed the checks, the indictment said. Mellon concealed the purpose of the checks by falsely filling the memos lines with items like “chairs” or “antique Charleston table” or “book case.” Young used the money for Hunter's rent, furniture, car, medical care and other expenses.
In December, Edwards asked Young to claim paternity of Hunter's child, telling Young that “his efforts to win the presidency – and everything they had fought for – depended on it.”
At that point, Baron began picking up the tab for Hunter and Young, spending about $183,000 on planes, hotels and rental houses as the unlikely couple jetted from Raleigh to Florida to Colorado and California, the indictment said.
Baron also gave Young $10,000 in cash in an envelope marked, “Old Chinese saying: use cash, not credit cards!”
In recent months, Edwards' lawyers have tried to persuade prosecutors in the U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section to drop the investigation.
Those efforts ended with today's indictment, which starts an even tougher legal battle.
The key questions in the case are whether payments to Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, and to a campaign staffer, Andrew Young, were intended to keep Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign alive, and whether Edwards knew about those payments.
Payments for Hunter never touched campaign accounts and weren't reported on campaign disclosure forms. Money went to Young and Hunter directly from donors or through intermediaries.
Prosecutors say the money was essentially campaign spending — intended to save the campaign by keeping Edwards' affair with Hunter secret — and thus an illegal use of campaign funds. They will point out that one donor, the late Fred Baron, was a key figure in Edwards' national campaigns. The other donor was multimillionaire Rachel “Bunny” Mellon.
Edwards' lawyers, on the other hand, say that the money was intended merely to conceal the affair from Edwards' late wife, Elizabeth, and was not connected to the campaign. As such, they argue, the payments were not illegal.
Investigators have been curious about Edwards' relationship with Mellon, whom Edwards courted for financing during his second failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 2008.
Mellon, who turned 100 last year, wrote sizable checks to further Edwards' political interests in 2005 and 2006, as Edwards positioned himself to run for the White House a second time after settling for the second spot on the Democratic ticket in 2004.
Mellon, matriarch of the late industrialist Andrew Mellon's family, contributed at least $3.48 million to a nonprofit group, The Alliance for a New America, that was created to further Edwards' political aspirations. Another nonprofit group that helped fund Edwards' campaign work isn't required to disclose donors.
Baron, a former Dallas trial lawyer who was finance chairman for the Edwards campaign, said before he died that he provided financial support to Young and Hunter.
The saga that led to today's charges began when Hunter, a videographer, secured work with Edwards' 2008 campaign in 2006 and 2007. According to campaign finance disclosures, she received $114,000 to film Edwards' travels across America and abroad to raise awareness about poverty. Hunter's “webisodes” were posted on the Internet.
When Hunter got pregnant in 2007, her role in Edwards' world shifted.
Young, a former Edwards aide, initially claimed paternity of Hunter's baby, and he and his family at one point lived with Hunter while Edwards publicly denied the affair. Edwards later admitted the affair but for a while still denied fathering the child.
Mellon began writing checks to help pay the living expenses of Hunter and Young, who were in hiding and stayed in homes in different places across the country.
Edwards, a trial lawyer himself, was elected U.S. senator from North Carolina as a political novice in 1998, defeating incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth. He chose not to seek re-election in 2004, running for president instead. Eventual Democratic nominee John Kerry chose him as his running mate that year.
A South Carolina native, Edwards lives in Orange County. His wife died of cancer last December.
© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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