WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - John Edwards acknowledged he has "done wrong" and hurt others but strongly denied breaking the law after federal prosecutors charged him yesterday with using $925,000 in under-the-table campaign contributions to hide his pregnant mistress during his 2008 run for president.
The former U.S. senator and two-time Democratic presidential hopeful was indicted on six felony charges that he violated campaign-finance laws in a desperate bid to protect both his White House hopes and his image as a devoted family man.
Edwards, 57, pleaded not guilty and was released without bail on the condition he surrender his passport. The former million-dollar trial lawyer now faces the prospect of a lurid trial and the possibility of both prison time and the loss of his license to practice law.
"There's no question that I've done wrong. And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I've caused to others," Edwards said outside the courthouse. "But I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law."
The charges came after a two-year FBI investigation into the former North Carolina senator's use of money from two wealthy backers to send his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, ostensibly a campaign photographer, into hiding in 2007 and 2008, at the height of his White House campaign.
"A centerpiece of Edwards' candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man," the indictment said. "Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and the pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards' presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy."
In an aggressive and apparently novel application of the law, prosecutors said the money constituted campaign contributions because it was intended to protect Edwards' political career from ruin. They said the spending was illegal because Edwards should have reported it on his campaign-finance filings and because it exceeded the $2,300-per-person limit on contributions.
Edwards' defense team argued in recent days that the money did not constitute campaign contributions because it was intended to hide the affair from his wife, Elizabeth, not to aid his campaign. She died of cancer last December.
Defense attorney Gregory Craig called the case unprecedented and said there was no way anyone should have known the payments should have been treated as campaign contributions.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington watchdog group often critical of the Justice Department for failing to pursue wrongdoing by government officials, was a surprising critic, with executive director Melanie Sloan saying the case was remarkably weak. While Sloan called Edwards' conduct despicable, she said "no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly."