Local Politics

Charges expected in Edwards investigation

Posted June 2, 2011 3:53 p.m. EDT
Updated June 3, 2011 9:31 a.m. EDT

— Criminal charges are likely to be filed Friday against John Edwards, the culmination of a two-year federal investigation into money used to cover up an extramarital affair during the 2008 presidential election.

Edwards' attorney Greg Craig was traveling to meet with prosecutors in North Carolina, an indication that the former presidential candidate will likely be charged, either in a grand jury indictment or in a negotiated charge to which he would plead guilty.

A person with knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press that Craig, a Washington lawyer who was President Barack Obama's first White House counsel, planned to be in his client's home state Friday, where prosecutors were prepared to file charges. The source insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the private negotiations.

Prosecutors have told Edwards they will charge him Friday but plea negotiations continue, so a grand jury indictment or deal on a negotiated charge are both still possible, the person said.

Edwards is still sitting on $2.8 million in his campaign fund from 2008. Whether he could use that money to fight potential criminal charges depends on the Federal Elections Commission, which makes recommendations on a case-by-case basis.

So far, Edwards has not asked if he’d be able to use the money for a legal fight, and that may be because he has plenty of money in the bank.

When Edwards ran in 2008, Money Magazine estimated he was worth $54.7 million. He made some of the money as a successful trial lawyer and worked for a hedge fund.

Edwards has a house in Chapel Hill worth $6.7 million, another house on Figure Eight Island worth $2.6 million and he may have financed a house in Charlotte where his former mistress Rielle Hunter lives with their 3-year-old daughter, Quinn. He pays to support the child, according to his attorney.

The former politician hasn't worked since a criminal investigation began in 2009. The last time he spoke publicly was in Haiti in January 2010 after a massive earthquake there. That was the same day he admitted to being the father of Hunter's daughter.

Edwards will have little recourse to rehabilitate his image and renew his legal career if confronted with charges involving the money used to cover up his extramarital affair.

A plea to a felony charge involving campaign finances could strip him of his law license, ending any hope he could work as an attorney. And a trial would mean more sordid stories about his campaign affair and the child he fathered, further battering his reputation.

Even if he were to win the case, it appears the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee would do so by making a humiliating argument: that money used to keep his mistress and out-of-wedlock child in hiding was intended to shield the affair from his cancer-stricken wife — not to aid his candidacy, which is what prosecutors believe.

"Trial or not, John Edwards is the Charlie Sheen of American politics — great hair and no chance for rehabilitation," said Democratic consultant Jack Quinn.

Political sex scandals can either be just a career glitch (think Newt Gingrich, who recently announced a run for the presidency) or a career-ender (think Mark Foley, who recently declined a run for mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla.). Many Democrats believe Edwards falls into the latter category, as someone who faces little chance of revitalizing his image even if he emerges victorious from his legal case.

No plea deal has been reached in the Edwards case a week after the anticipation of an indictment became public. Edwards' attorneys have already denounced the investigation as a waste of resources and contend he did not violate the law, raising the likelihood that the matter will be settled in a court battle.

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. However, a lawyer in North Carolina who pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal offense faces disciplinary action by the State Bar, ranging from a mild rebuke to a loss of license to practice.

The case against Edwards is largely focused on whether private money used to keep Edwards' mistress in hiding should have been considered a campaign contribution because it arguably aided his bid for the presidency. Andrew Young, a former aide to Edwards who initially claimed paternity of Hunter's child and traveled around the country keeping her in seclusion, has said he received hundreds of thousands of dollars of support from two wealthy Edwards donors.

Another dent in an Edwards' revival is moving ahead in civil court, where Young and Hunter are battling over a purported sex tape involving the former candidate. Edwards has been deposed as part of that lawsuit.

Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist who helped get Edwards elected to the Senate, said he'd prefer to see Edwards take a plea deal and avoid a grueling trial that would rehash past sins.

"We've all had enough," said Pearce, who doesn't think Edwards will ever be able to return to politics.

Edwards, 57, has spent much of his time in seclusion since he first admitted the affair in 2008. He eventually admitted to fathering a child with Hunter. His wife died of cancer last year.

Several Democrats said Edwards could someday return to making a living but won't be able to strengthen his image to a prominent position.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who helped former President Bill Clinton through his cheating scandal, said Edwards' errors were particularly egregious even in an American society used to seeing political leaders stumble.

"The conduct went beyond what people expect and assume from politicians," Lehane said.