Local Politics

Review process common in political corruption investigations

Posted June 1, 2011 4:19 p.m. EDT
Updated June 1, 2011 7:10 p.m. EDT

— After months of investigating the campaign finances of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, federal prosecutors turned the case over to lawyers in Washington, D.C., for review before taking it back before a grand jury.

The grand jury in Raleigh is now continuing its work on the case, and sources have told WRAL News that an indictment could come as early as this week.

Unlike many criminal cases in federal court, political corruption cases need to pass muster with the U.S. Department of Justice as well as a grand jury.

"It is a check and balance," Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor, said Wednesday. "To the extent that we prosecute political figures, you want to make sure there's a thorough vetting."

U.S. Attorney George Holding, a Republican appointee, is in charge of the case, but it was the Democratic-controlled Justice Department that eventually signed off on the case, allowing it to move forward.

"I think it's fair to say that both professional and political people on both sides have looked at this and concluded that there's probable cause that a crime has been committed," Shanahan said.

The case centers on money from Edwards' campaign donors and whether it was used illegally to cover up his affair and child with a campaign staffer.

Former Edwards aide Andrew Young wrote in his tell-all book, "The Politician," that heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon gave Edwards $700,000. The so-called "Bunny money" helped fund the cover-up the candidate's affair with video producer Rielle Hunter, who was pregnant with the his child during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Young told WRAL News in a 2010 interview that Edwards' campaign finance chairman, wealthy Texas lawyer Fred Baron, also financed flights and paid rent on a California home for Hunter and Young's family during the period when Young pretended to be the father of Hunter's baby.

Baron died of cancer in 2008, but his widow appeared before the federal grand jury in Raleigh in January. FBI agents also have interviewed Mellon, who is 100, twice at her Virginia estate.

The question for the court is whether the money was a gift or an unreported campaign expense that furthered Edwards' run for president.

Sources have told WRAL News that Edwards is considering a plea deal to conclude the investigation, but he's not interested in a felony conviction that would cost him his license to practice law.

Greg Craig, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing Edwards, asserted in a statement last week, however, that Edwards hadn't broken any laws and that the government was chasing a misguided prosecution.

If Edwards fights an indictment and loses at trial, legal experts say he could face four to five years in prison because of the amount of money involved in the cover-up.