- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2011

Former U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards pleaded not guilty Friday in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem, N.C., to charges he concealed nearly $1 million in secret campaign donations to hide an extramarital affair and to protect and advance his 2008 presidential candidacy.

Mr. Edwards, 57, was named Friday in a six-count federal grand jury indictment handed up in Raleigh, N.C., on charges of conspiracy to conceal campaign contributions; violating federal campaign finance laws; making false statements to the Federal Election Commission; accepting and receiving illegal campaign contributions; and concealing those donations from the FEC.

“There is no question that I’ve done wrong and I take full responsibility for having done wrong,” Mr. Edwards told reporters after his initial courthouse appearance. “And 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.”

Mr. Edwards was released on his own recognizance and told to stay away from campaign benefactor Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, 99, whose alleged donations to his 2008 presidential effort lie at the heart of the government’s case. He also was ordered to surrender his passport and to remain in the continental United States.

He appeared at the courthouse with his oldest daughter, Cate.

The affair drew national headlines and destroyed the once-promising former trial lawyer’s political career, but the government’s legal arguments in the case have also drawn criticism as a novel and expansive application of federal election statutes.

Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said Mr. Edwards is charged as part of a scheme to protect and advance his presidential candidacy from disclosure of an ongoing extramarital affair and the child he had with his mistress. He said the former senator also conspired with others as a candidate for president to accept and receive campaign contributions in excess of limits imposed by the Federal Election Act.

The indictment alleges that between 2007 and 2008, Mr. Edwards accepted and received more than $900,000 as part of the alleged conspiracy. Cited in the indictment is a damaging note from Ms. Mellon, who agreed to make donations of more than $700,000 that were used for the expenses of Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer who has been identified as Mr. Edwards mistress and the mother of his child.

“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,” Mr. Breuer said in a statement.

“Our campaign finance system is designed to preserve the integrity of democratic elections for the presidency and all other elected offices  and we will vigorously pursue abuses of the kind alleged today,” he said.

Mr. Edwards‘ attorney, Gregory Craig, former Clinton White House counsel, described the case as “an unprecedented prosecution, much less an unprecedented civil case.”

“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,” Mr. Craig said in a statement. “He will enter a plea of not guilty. He has broken no law, and we will defend this case vigorously.”

In a statement, the D.C.-based watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), described the case against Mr. Edwards as “remarkably weak,” and suggested that, as with the government’s failed prosecution of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican, the “Edwards matter is likely to leave [the Department of Justice] with egg on its face.”

“While CREW has long been critical of DOJ for failing to aggressively pursue cases against high-level government officials, the indictment of Sen. Edwards is a strange place to start,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan, criticizing the department for failing to bring similar cases against former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, or former Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican and former Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican.

“Prosecution of any of those cases would have rested on solid court precedent,” she said. “Sen. Edwards‘ conduct was despicable and deserves society’s condemnation, but that alone does not provide solid grounds for a criminal case. DOJ’s scattershot approach to prosecuting public officials is incomprehensible and undermines the integrity of the criminal justice system.”

The Federal Election Act limits the amount a person may contribute to any candidate for federal elected office to limit the influence any one person may have on the outcome of a federal election. The act established that the most one individual could contribute for the 2008 presidential primary election was $2,300.

The government contends that the act’s contribution limit applies to anything of value provided for the purpose of influencing a federal election, including contributions to a candidate and his campaign; expenditures made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate or his campaign; and payments for personal expenses of a candidate unless those payments would have been made irrespective of his/her candidacy.

According to the indictment, the payments at issue were in fact used to facilitate Mr. Edwards‘ extramarital affair, and to conceal it and the resulting pregnancy from the public.

The indictment alleges that the funds were used to pay for the living and medical expenses of Mr. Edwards‘ mistress and to pay for the travel and accommodations necessary to hide her from the news media and the public.

If convicted, Mr. 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.

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