WASHINGTON (Reuters) - John Edwards, a Democratic hopeful for president in 2008, was indicted on Friday for using nearly $1 million in illegal campaign funds to help cover up an extramarital affair during his run for the White House.
In a fall from grace for a man once expected to go far in American politics, Edwards, 57, was charged with six counts, including conspiracy, taking illegal campaign contributions and making false statements, according to the federal indictment.
“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,” Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s criminal division, said in a statement.
Flanked by five lawyers, Edwards pleaded not guilty during a 30-minute hearing in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem hours after the indictment was filed. The judge set a tentative trial date of July 11.
After the hearing, Edwards told reporters he was innocent.
“There’s no question that I’ve done wrong and I take full responsibility for having done wrong and I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I’ve caused to others,” he said with his eldest daughter Cate at his side.
“But I did not break the law and I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law.”
Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld released Edwards without requiring him to post bail but ordered him to surrender his passport and stay away from one of the people who made the bulk of the contributions at issue, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon.
Edwards and Mellon met at her home in Virginia last week but a lawyer for her told CNN the meeting was “entirely social and personal. No discussion of (the) case.”
If Edwards is convicted, each count carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The indictment accused Edwards of secretly getting the money to help cover up his affair with a campaign worker, Rielle Hunter, knowing that revelations of the liaison and her pregnancy would destroy his 2008 presidential bid.
The affair would undermine “Edwards’ presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy,” the indictment said.
Edwards had big political ambitions, serving just one term in the U.S. Senate before running for the White House in 2004. While he failed to win enough support, he was picked to be the vice-presidential running-mate of Democratic Senator John Kerry but they failed to defeat Republican President George W. Bush.
Edwards used that as a jumping off point to run again for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 but rumors swirled about the affair and he again failed to win.
Federal prosecutions of such senior politicians are fairly rare and legal experts were split over whether the money from the donors could be construed as campaign contributions.
The Justice Department is also looking at former U.S. Senator John Ensign, a Republican, over payments his parents made to a former staffer and his wife after the lawmaker had an affair with the man’s wife.
Edwards, a trial lawyer and former U.S. senator from North Carolina, at first denied on national television that he had the affair or paid Hunter any money.
He finally admitted to the relationship, which ran from February 2006 until August 2008, and to fathering the child, which lead his wife Elizabeth to leave him. She died of cancer last year.
While the indictment did not name Hunter or the staff and donors who helped cover up the illegal payments and conspiracy, it clearly referred to her and to Edwards’ trusted aide, Andrew Young, who initially claimed he was the baby’s father.
Mellon wrote seven checks totaling $725,000 over seven months to Young but the money was ultimately used to pay for Hunter’s medical visits, prenatal care, rent, furniture, car and other living expenses, according to the indictment.
The donor falsely listed on the memo line of the checks that the money was for furniture such as an antique table, the indictment said. The federal limit on individual contributions to candidates at the time was $2,300.
Another donor, trial lawyer Fred Baron, who was finance chairman for Edwards’ 2008 campaign, paid just over $183,000 for flights, hotel accommodation including $25,000 at the posh Four Seasons in Santa Barbara, California, for Hunter and Young, according to the charges.
According to the indictment, Baron in December 2007 gave Young $1,000 in cash in an envelope and wrote in a note to him, “Old Chinese saying: use cash, not credit cards!”
Additional reporting by Ned Barnett in Winston-Salem, N.C. and Colleen Jenkins in St. Petersburg, Fla.; Editing by John O'Callaghan