Winston-Salem, N.C. — An expert witness and lawyer retained by John Edwards say the two-time Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. senator from North Carolina did not violate federal law in covering up an affair and daughter born out of wedlock.
Edwards, 58, pleaded not guilty Friday to four counts of illegal campaign contributions and charges of conspiracy and false statements.
The indictment follows a two-year-long investigation into whether Edwards' 2008 campaign used more than $900,000 in campaign contributions to cover up his affair with staffer Rielle Hunter and the birth of their daughter, Quinn. Prosecutors allege that he did so to protect his presidential ambitions.
The federal investigation zeroed in on money from Rachel "Bunny" 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.
Lawyer Pat Fiori, who worked Edwards' campaigns in 2004 and 2008, said the money was a personal gift.
"Based on my expert knowledge and experience with campaign finance law, I continue to believe today that the Mellon-Baron payments were not campaign contributions," Fiori said in a statement released Friday by Edwards' lawyers, Wade Smith and Jim Cooney.
Scott E. Thomas, former chair of the Federal Elections Commission, said prosecutors are using a "novel and misguided theory of campaign finance liability" based on "a far-reaching and (in my view) erroneous reading of the law."
"A criminal prosecution of a candidate on these facts would be outside anything I would expect after decades of experience with the campaign finance laws," Thomas said in a statement from Edwards' lawyers.
Thomas said he was consulted by prosecutors in the case and told them that he knew of no previous cases applying the law this way.
Former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce said the government's case for conspiracy is set up by a note by Mellon cited in the indictment.
Mellon wrote to Edwards aide Andrew Young in 2007, stating 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.
That last sentence "sets up a case to say he or people in his campaign were looking for ways to circumvent the federal elections system," Boyce said.
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."
Edwards 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. He is free on a written promise to appear in court and under the condition that he have no contact with Mellon, whom he saw as recently as last week.
If convicted on all counts, Edwards faces a maximum of 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines, lawyers say he would probably be sentenced to about five years in prison since he doesn't have a criminal record.