Winston-Salem, N.C. — John Edwards, a two-time Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator from North Carolina, emerged from a Winston-Salem courthouse Friday afternoon with his eldest daughter by his side to proclaim that he is innocent of the federal charges against him.
He pleaded not guilty to four counts of illegal campaign contributions and charges of conspiracy and false statements.
The indictment follows a high-profile investigation that lasted more than two years into whether Edwards' 2008 campaign used more than $900,000 in campaign contributions to cover up his affair with staffer Rielle Hunter and the pregnancy and birth of their daughter, Quinn.
"There’s no question that I've done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong," Edwards said Friday. "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 I was breaking the law."
Edwards, 58, made the short but emphatic statement to a crowd of reporters and photographers outside the courthouse with his daughter, Cate Edwards, by his side.
He is scheduled to appear in court in Greensboro on July 5 for a motions hearing, and his trial is scheduled to begin on July 11, according to a court scheduling order. Edwards was released Friday without bond, but on condition that he have no contact with Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the campaign donor whose money prosecutors allege Edwards used to cover up his affair and protect his presidential ambitions.
If convicted on all counts, Edwards faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. However, he would probably be sentenced to about five years in prison since he doesn't have a criminal record, according to Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor.
Edwards' Washington, D.C.-based attorney, Greg Craig, made a brief statement to the media earlier Friday, calling the case "unprecedented."
"No one has ever been charged with the claims brought against Sen. Edwards," he said.
Craig has asserted that Edwards didn't break any laws and that the government was chasing a misguided prosecution.
U.S. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer released a statement Friday saying he "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 federal investigation zeroed in on money from Mellon, a 100-year-old heiress to pharmaceutical and banking fortunes and a major donor to Edwards' campaign, and from his former campaign finance chairman, Fred Baron, who died from cancer in 2008.
Edwards saw Mellon as recently as last week and is now ordered to have no contact with her.
Mellon gave $3.4 million in late 2007 to The Alliance for a New America, a nonprofit supporting Edwards' candidacy. Former Edwards aide Andrew Young wrote last year in his tell-all book that Mellon also gave Edwards $725,000 as a gift for personal use.
Young told WRAL News in a 2010 interview that Mellon was in the dark about how her money was being used. He said campaign workers commonly referred to the checks she wrote as "Bunny money."
The indictment released Friday showed that Mellon wrote a note to Young in 2007, which showed her willingness to help Edwards as he took heat over a $400 haircut.
"I was sitting alone in a grim mood – furious that the press attacked Senator Edwards on the price of a haircut. But it inspired me – from now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign – please send the bills to me.... It is a way to help our friend without government restrictions," she wrote.
Former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce said the final line of the memo sets up the government's case for conspiracy. "That one sentence sets up a case to say he or people in his campaign were looking for ways to circumvent the federal elections system."
The heart of the indictment against Edwards is the allegation that he worked with others to hide his affair and child with Hunter.
"The conspiracy count is called the little darling of prosecutors, because all they have to prove is there there was an agreement to do some illegal act and then there's one overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy," Boyce said.
Boyce called the statements attributed to witnesses and to Edwards in the indictment "pretty alarming."
According to Young, Baron financed flights and paid $20,000 a month in rent on a California home for shared by Hunter and Young's family during the period when Young pretended to be the father of Hunter's baby to protect Edwards from negative publicity.
Young also told WRAL News that Baron paid him $325,000 to finish his own home back in Chapel Hill so it could be sold when he moved to California.
Baron's widow appeared before the federal grand jury in Raleigh in January. Investigators also interviewed Mellon twice at her estate in Virginia, and some of her family members testified before the grand jury in December.
Hunter, Young and other campaign insiders testified before the grand jury in 2009.
"The potential for blackmail with those same donors is extraordinary," said Democratic political consultant Joe Sinsheimer. "In one case, one of the donors was a Texas trial lawyer named Fred Baron. You might have had a case where Fred Baron might have felt he could have chosen the next Supreme Court nominee had Edwards been elected president."
Sinsheimer described Edwards as an "extraordinarily talented man who's thrown it all away on a series of bad decisions."
"And just when you think things can't get any worse, they did. He got indicted," Sinsheimer said.
People listed in the indictment include:
- Person A = Andrew Young, a former Edwards aide who initially claimed paternity of Hunter's daughter and traveled around the country keeping her in seclusion.
- Person B = Rielle Hunter, a former campaign staffer who had an affair and daughter with Edwards.
- Person C = Bunny Mellon, who gave Edwards $725,000 as a gift, according to Young. In his book, "The Politician," Young wrote that the money was used to help cover up Edwards' affair with Hunter.
- Person D = Fred Baron, a Texas lawyer and Edwards' former campaign finance chairman who died in 2008.