- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Former presidential candidate John Edwards and federal prosecutors are arguing over whether funds used to cover up his extramarital affair were campaign contributions or just gifts from his longtime friends.

An indictment of the 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee appeared near, but some people on both sides were still hoping Tuesday for a last-minute deal for Mr. Edwards to plead guilty to a negotiated charge.

So far, Mr. Edwards has refused to admit to felony charges that would likely cost him his law license, according to people with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on a condition of anonymity because they are supposed to be private. Mr. Edwards has said he hopes that once this case is behind him he can revive his legal career, specializing in helping the victims of poverty he championed on the campaign trail.

But the approach of a federal indictment could heighten his desire to stave off a trial that would give wide exposure to sordid details of his affair, the daughter he initially disavowed as his, the vast sums of money that flowed to keep the affair secret and other unflattering tales from inside his campaign. Public airing of those accounts could further damage a reputation he hopes to revive and could bring more pain to his children, who have already endured public scrutiny of their father’s infidelity and their mother’s recent death.

The prosecutors have decided after a two-year investigation that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that two Edwards donors gave to help keep his mistress in hiding were contributions that should have been reported publicly by his campaign fund because they aided his bid for the 2008 presidential nomination. But Mr. Edwards’ lawyers have argued the funds were gifts intended to keep the affair a secret from his wife, Elizabeth, who died of cancer in December.

Campaign finance experts say that if the case goes to trial, a jury would be asked to decide whether the payments were to influence the campaign, as opposed or in addition to keeping Mrs. Edwards from learning of the affair, and whether Mr. Edwards helped coordinate the money, because there’s no limit on the amount of money a person can spend independently of a candidate’s campaign to influence an election.

“It would come down to a jury weighting the degree to which it was personal versus which it was political,” said Paul Ryan, an attorney with the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “Often real life isn’t as cut and dried as the law.”

“He wouldn’t be the first person to cause payment of hush money to keep infidelity quiet and hidden from his own family,” Mr. Ryan said. “But I think the casual observer would likely conclude that keeping his campaign viable was at least a motivating factor if not the motivating factor.”

Artur Davis, a former Democratic congressman and assistant U.S. attorney from Alabama, said Tuesday that prosecutors shouldn’t be too confident even if Mr. Edwards seems unsympathetic.

“Any assumptions about the certainty of a slam-dunk conviction need look no further than the hung jury in the first Rod Blagojevich trial in Chicago,” he said, referring to the former Illinois governor’s bribery case. “It’s hard to imagine a more shattered figure who had endured more public ridicule than Blagojevich, and yet the jury deadlocked on all but one count. Juries are very focused on facts and not personalities.”

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