Edwards meets with leading figure in criminal probe

Posted May 26, 2011 9:41 p.m. EDT
Updated May 27, 2011 6:01 p.m. EDT

— Former presidential candidate John Edwards met Thursday with a leading figure in the investigation into funds used to cover up his extramarital affair, certain to attract the attention of the Justice Department as it prepares possible criminal charges against him.

William Taylor, an attorney for heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, confirmed they had lunch at her Upperville, Va., home but said they did not discuss the case.

"It was entirely personal and social," Taylor said in a telephone interview. "There was no discussion of anything related to his situation."

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

Political observers have said the money was a campaign contribution and should have been noted in Edwards' campaign finance reports.

There are also questions about millions of dollars from Mellon that went to The Alliance for a New America, a nonprofit that supported Edwards' candidacy. Money from the nonprofit was paid to a consultant agency that no longer exists.

Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh attorney and former federal prosecutor, said Friday that, while the trip was legal, it was ill-advised.

"If I were a federal prosecutor and I learned through the media or other sources that a target with whom we're trying to work out a deal is meeting with a key witness, I would be very concerned that some improper influence was going on," Shanahan said.

The meeting comes within days of the Justice Department's plans to bring criminal charges against Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina. Prosecutors have spent two years investigating whether money from political backers, including Mellon, used to cover up his affair and out-of-wedlock daughter should have been reported as campaign contributions since they arguably aided his presidential bid.

Sources have told WRAL News that Edwards is considering a plea deal in the case, which could go before a federal grand jury in Raleigh as early as next week.

Taylor said he was at the meeting at Mellon's estate and that Edwards didn't ask her for any financial help for his case.

Edwards also met with Mellon in December 2009, as federal prosecutors were ramping up the investigation. FBI agents have interviewed Mellon twice at her estate during the investigation, and some of her relatives testified before a grand jury in Raleigh last winter.

"The last thing I would let a client do is meet with a key witness in a case," Shanahan said. "He should be huddling with his defense team to decide one of the most important decisions he will make in his life."

Edwards attorney Gregory Craig said in a statement Wednesday that prosecutors have never found that campaign funds were misused and the government's theory in the case is without precedent and "wrong on the facts and wrong on the law."

"He has more control over the outcome of his future the day before he's indicted than he ever will the day after he's indicted," Shanahan said.

Investigators have also looked at money spent by Edwards' former campaign finance chairman, Texas lawyer Fred Baron, who died in 2008. He said before his death that he helped Young and Hunter move across the country and that Edwards wasn't aware of the aid. Young said in his book, however, that Edwards knew about Baron's money.

Edwards' campaign committee reports that is now has more than $2.7 million in cash on hand.