John Edwards pleads not guilty to six-count federal indictment

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) pleaded not guilty to six federal charges related to alleged campaign finance law violations.

Edwards was indicted by federal prosecutors in North Carolina on Friday and appeared in the Middle District of North Carolina, in Winston-Salem, at 2:30 p.m. 

In his first public comments since news of a possible indictment surfaced, Edwards admitted making mistakes in his personal life that will haunt him for years to come, but he maintained that he had done nothing illegal.

“There’s no question that I’ve done wrong," said Edwards in front of the federal courthouse in North Carolina on Friday. "I take full responsibility for having done wrong. I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I’ve caused to others. But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.”

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Gregory Craig, lead counsel to Edwards, said Edwards would enter a not guilty plea.

“John Edwards will tell the court he is innocent of all charges, and will plead not guilty. He did not break the law and will mount a vigorous defense," he said in a statement.

The indictment charges Edwards with one count of conspiracy for violating federal campaign finance laws and making false statements to the Federal Election Commission (FEC); four counts of accepting and receiving illegal campaign contributions from two donors in 2007 and 2008; and one count of concealing those illegal donations from the FEC, according to the Justice Department (DOJ).

The charges come after a more than two-year investigation.

"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," said Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer in 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 charges arise from hundreds of thousands of dollars two prominent campaign donors gave to videographer Rielle Hunter, after it was reported that she and Edwards had an affair. It has since been revealed that Edwards fathered a child with her.

Craig, speaking to reporters on his way into the courthouse Friday, said there is no precedent for such a case and that Edwards was never aware that the payments to Hunter could possibly have violated campaign finance laws.

“This is an unprecedented prosecution, much less an unprecedented civil case,” said Craig. “No one would have known or should have known or could have been expected to know that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions. And there is no way that Senator Edwards knew that fact either.”

If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the conspiracy charge. He faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count of accepting and receiving illegal campaign contributions, and a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the charge of concealing the alleged illegal donations, according to DOJ.

According to the indictment, during the 2008 presidential race Edwards "conspired with other individuals to accept and receive campaign contributions in excess of limits imposed by the Federal Election Act in an effort to protect and advance his candidacy from disclosure of an ongoing extramarital affair and the resulting pregnancy."

The payments "were used to facilitate Edwards’s extramarital affair, and to conceal it and the resulting pregnancy from the public," the prosecutors charge, "so Edwards's candidacy would not be damaged."

They also charge that "Edwards knew that the public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would undermine his image and force his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny."

That led to alleged false filings with the FEC and misleading campaign finance reports, according to the indictment.

Edwards's legal team released a statement Friday from an expert witness, former FEC commissioner Scott Thomas, claiming the money didn't constitute campaign donations and, therefore, did not violate campaign laws.

"It is my view that, under the law as developed by the United States courts and the Federal Election Commission, these payments would not be considered to be either campaign contributions or campaign expenditures within the meaning of the campaign finance laws; that the Federal Election Commission, if asked, would conclude that these payments did not constitute a violation of the law, even as a civil matter; and that the facts do not make out a knowing and willful violation of the campaign finance laws warranting criminal prosecution," Thomas said in the statement.

Former Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) slammed DOJ’s case against Edwards. Davis, who worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama for 4 years, said the indictment is lacking any solid foundation, such as charges that Edwards obstructed justice charges or made false statements.

“Trials aren’t sporting competitions and it’s easy for the public to view this as a sporting match,” said Davis in an interview with The Hill.

“The reality is an indictment should be brought when it’s a case that serves the public’s interest and when these are facts that justify depriving someone of their liberty and their freedom. From what I see of the facts, this is a stretch to charge John Edwards.”

Davis said that the government and Edwards are entering into “a legal war” and that DOJ should not rely on Edwards’s tarnished image to convince a jury of his guilt.

"Any assumptions about a slam-dunk conviction need look no further than the hung jury in the first Rod Blagojevich trial in Chicago,” said Davis. “Juries are focused on facts, not personalities.”

The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) also condemned the indictment, saying DOJ could come out of the trial looking badly because the allegations are not likely to hold up against Edwards.

“Sen. Edwards’s conduct was despicable and deserves society’s condemnation, but that alone does not provide solid grounds for a criminal case,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of CREW. “DOJ’s scattershot approach to prosecuting public officials is incomprehensible and undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

Prosecutors were given the go-ahead last week to indict Edwards for violating campaign finance laws if a plea deal could not be reached with his lawyers beforehand.

Edwards has longtime friendships with donors Fred Baron and Bunny Mellon, which continued after he withdrew from the 2008 presidential campaign.

Prosecutors would most likely have to prove that the donors intended to support Edwards’s bid for the 2008 presidential election and keep his campaign afloat by giving the money to Hunter, or that Edwards intentionally funneled the money to her knowing that it would benefit his campaign, according to campaign finance lawyers familiar with the case.

If the DOJ could prove this level of intent, then the money could be considered an in-kind campaign contribution that was not reported, which would violate campaign finance laws.

— This story was originally posted at 9:08 a.m. and was last updated at 3:41 p.m.