WASHINGTON - Former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has insisted that he broke no laws when he hid his pregnant mistress while seeking the nomination in 2008. Now, he has made that position official, pleading not guilty to federal criminal charges that he accepted nearly $1 million from two supporters to fund the deception.
On Friday, a federal grand jury indicted Edwards, 57, on six counts of violating campaign-finance laws, lying to the government, and conspiring to protect his candidacy by breaking the law.
The case against Edwards could rise or fall on whether the government is overreaching, trying to hold Edwards to a higher election-law standard than usual.
Notably, the first paragraph of the 19-page indictment said that a "centerpiece" of Edwards' candidacy in 2008 was "his public image as a devoted family man" and that he often stressed to voters that "family comes first."
The government maintains that by accepting money to keep his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and eventually their baby, Frances Quinn Hunter, out of sight, he was trying to maintain the viability of his candidacy. Therefore, said the government, the money constituted undeclared campaign contributions.
The indictment and Edwards' plea are the latest episodes in an all-too-familiar story of a political and personal implosion.
But the details - the deceptions about who fathered the child, the extent of the cover-up, and the illness and subsequent death of Edwards' wife - lend an especially sordid air to Edwards' fall. If he does not reach a plea deal with prosecutors, he will go to trial - and his disgrace will continue to be played out in a most public arena.
"There is no question that I have done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong," the former North Carolina senator and vice presidential nominee told a throng of reporters Friday afternoon after emerging from the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem.
"I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others. But I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law."
Edwards, whose daughter Cate, 29, stood behind him, did not take questions. Nor did he mention his wife, Elizabeth, who had incurable cancer when he began his affair and who died in December.
It was unclear what penalties Edwards might face if convicted.
"As this indictment shows," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said in a statement, "we will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election law."
Edwards' attorney, former White House counsel Gregory Craig, called the prosecution "unprecedented."
"No one has ever been charged, either civilly or criminally, with the claims that have been brought against Sen. Edwards today," Craig, who managed President Bill Clinton's impeachment defense, said at the courthouse. "No one would have known, or should have known, or could have been expected to know, that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions. And there was no way Sen. Edwards knew that fact either."
According to the indictment, the result of a grand jury investigation over more than two years, Edwards solicited and accepted approximately $725,000 from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the 100-year-old banking heiress who is identified as "Person B," and more than $200,000 from Fred Baron, his national campaign-finance chairman who died in late October 2008, identified as "Person D." Edwards, said the indictment, "failed to disclose these illegal contributions" to the Federal Election Commission.
Edwards' former aide Andrew Young was a key witness. He helped solicit the money, falsely said he was the father of Hunter's child, took his wife and three children into hiding with Hunter, and then became an object of derision for his role.
Young was blamed for the scandal by Elizabeth Edwards. In a March 2010 interview, as she wrote a new epilogue for her book Resilience, she said she believed Young orchestrated the cover-up.
But she said, "I don't think they will indict anybody," adding: "I don't think there was a criminal offense here, unless it's a fraud against Bunny Mellon."
She said her husband continued to maintain he had had a one-night stand with Hunter and did not admit he fathered her child, now 3, until the couple were in therapy in summer 2009. The Edwardses separated in January 2010, days after Edwards admitted publicly that he had fathered a child with Hunter.
On Friday, Young's attorney, David Geneson, said that Young felt "vindicated."
Last year, Young wrote a book about the scandal, The Politician. The indictment mirrors the tale he told. "The story is accurate," Geneson said. "The government has corroborated it."
He said Young made no deal with the government but had been promised in writing that, if he continued to cooperate, he would not be prosecuted.
Some experts said they did not know of any case in which prosecutors brought criminal charges against a candidate for using money from a wealthy contributor to hide a personal matter. Normally such violations are handled as civil matters and result in fines and requirements for the candidates to repay the money.
Scott E. Thomas, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, met with prosecutors on Edwards' behalf to persuade them not to seek criminal charges.
"I do not believe that there is any prior case that states that the conduct at issue in the Edwards matter, or even conduct substantially similar to it, constituted a violation of the statute," Thomas said.
Michael Toner, also a former FEC chairman, agreed. "This is a real stretch," he said. "And I say that as a Republican who is no fan of John Edwards."