- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2011

A federal grand jury returned a six-count indictment today against John Edwards, the former senator and two-time presidential candidate. The government charges vindicate the story that the National Enquirer broke four and a half years ago: that Mr. Edwards was having an affair with Rielle Hunter and she was pregnant.

Executive Editor Barry Levine oversaw the Enquirer’s team of reporters and photographers who relentlessly pursued the story that turned out to be a blockbuster. “It’s been a long road and today’s indictment is vindication that this little supermarket tabloid exposed this massive cover-up,” Mr. Levine told The Washington Times. “We did our job. We got the facts right on this from the get-go. It’s amazing and a shame that the mainstream media couldn’t have followed our lead and pursued the story.”

The six counts against Mr. Edwards include four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions from two donors in 2007 and 2008, one count of concealing those illegal donations from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and one count of conspiracy to violate the federal campaign finance laws and making false statements to the FEC. According to the indictment, the payments were used to facilitate Mr. Edwards‘ affair, and to conceal it and the resulting pregnancy from the public.  

In December 2007, the Enquirer printed a photo of an eight-month pregnant Rielle Hunter and alleged that Mr. Edwards was not being fully honest about what happened. It reported campaign aide Andrew Young paid for Miss Hunter to move into a gated community in North Carolina. “We first said hush money was being paid to Andrew and Rielle to cover this thing up,” Mr. Levine explained. While on the presidential campaign trail, Mr. Edwards denied the affair and cover-up, saying, “The story is false, it’s completely untrue, ridiculous.”

The federal indictment alleges that campaign funds were used for Miss Hunter’s living expenses, travel and accommodations in order to hide her from the news media and the public so that his candidacy would not be damaged.

Reporters on the campaign bus with the candidate did not purse the story, but the Enquirer kept on it throughout 2008. Mr. Levine said that during that period, he was “just flabbergasted” that no one else followed up. “Here was a guy running for president who was betraying his cancer-stricken wife and his own campaign workers. If the mainstream media didn’t want to believe us, investigate yourselves. We literally drew a map to the people involved and no one wanted to go down that road.”

In July, the tabloid caught Mr. Edwards holding his baby daughter in a hotel room at the Beverly Hills Hilton. A month later, he confessed to ABC that he had a brief out-of-wedlock affair, claiming it occurred when his wife Elizabeth was in remission from cancer. He continued to deny that the baby was his, letting his former aide Mr. Young falsely claim paternity.

The paper was the first to report that campaign contributor Fred Baron was funneling money to hide Miss Hunter and her baby daughter from the press. “He moved her to a giant mansion in California with Andrew Young and his wife,” Mr. Levine explained. “Then moved her to a second mansion by the ocean. Our sources were saying at the time that this was a massive cover-up of hundreds of thousands, if not million of dollars.”

After Friday’s indictment was handed down, Assistant Attorney General Breuer said that, “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…. 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 case of USA v. Johnny Reid Edwards will go to trial in North Carolina. If convicted, the former trial lawyer faces a penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the six charges against him.

Last year, I launched a campaign for The National Enquirer to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting on the Edwards case. As the news organization that single handled uncovered this political sex scandal that ended with criminal charges, I believed that the Enquirer deserved the Ivy League prize. The committee initially refused to accept the Enquirer’s submission for various technical reasons. Mr. Levine persisted and the paper was included in the nominating for two categories.

In the end, however, the self-appointed media elite who run the Pulitzer committee did not give the paper even a mention in the prizes. The previous year, The New York Times won for its work exposing the Eliot Spitzer sex scandal, which did not end in criminal charges - instead he got his own show on CNN. “It still stings that the Pulitzer committee didn’t feel we were worthy of some type of acknowledgement, event a mention or a runner up of the work we did,” Mr. Levine said.

He thinks the indictment represents a far more important prize. “I think this is a victory not only for Enquirer but for all new media. It shows today that the gates are open. It’s not just The New York Times or the Washington Post that can break these stories. It’s the National Enquirer, Huffington Post, Drudge, these websites that are pushing real journalism like we are.”

Looking at the the bigger picture for the future of journalism, he said, “This is endorsement if you are persistent and aggressive and believe there a story there — despite others not believing in you and the subject calling you a liar, you can win.”

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.