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06.03.11

The John Edwards Case Decoded

The former presidential candidate has just been indicted on six counts stemming from his attempt to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter. Who’s defending Edwards, how strong is the federal case, and why didn’t he take a plea deal? The Daily Beast answers those and other key questions about the case.

Plus, Howard Kurtz has an exclusive report on Edwards' money trail.

After a two-year investigation, a grand jury indicted former senator and two-time presidential candidate John Edwards for violating campaign finance laws in his attempt to cover up an affair with former staffer Rielle Hunter.

Edwards pleaded not guilty on Friday—though he admitted some obvious wrongdoing. “There is no question that I have done wrong,” Edwards said in a brief statement to reporters in North Carolina. “But I did not break the law.”

What is he being charged with?

As is so often the case, it’s the coverup that turned the affair from a career disaster to a legal one. The grand jury is accusing Edwards of taking campaign contributions in excess of the legal limits and then using that money to cover up his affair with Hunter, his former campaign videographer. In all, Edwards is being indicted on six counts: four of illegal campaign contributions, one of conspiracy, and one of making false statements.

Who were Edwards’ big-money donors?

Campaign donations from individuals are limited by federal law to $25,000, but the indictment says Edwards received $900,000 from “Person C” and “Person D,” believed to be Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron. Mellon, a centenarian heiress, is alleged to have given Edwards approximately $725,000, much of it listed as expenditures on furniture. Mellon seems to have known full well that she was flouting campaign laws, saying in a note included in the indictment that the media scandal of Edwards’ $400 haircuts “inspired” her and that Edwards should send all such bills to her as “a way to help our friend without government restrictions.” Baron, a Texas trial lawyer and finance chair of Edwards’ campaign, reportedly gave $200,000. Before his death in 2008, Baron said he had given money to hide Hunter from the press but denied Edwards knew anything about it.

Who is ‘Person A’ in the indictment?

The key witness in the grand jury’s case, called simply “Person A” in the indictment, is believed to be Edwards’ former staffer Andrew Young. Young appears in the indictment as Edwards’ bagman, ferrying money from Baron and Mellon to Hunter, at one point even carrying $1,000 in an envelope marked “Old Chinese saying: use cash, not credit cards!” Young turned out to be an unreliable accomplice. Last year he came out with a tell-all book in which he details Edwards’ attempts to cover up his affair. When the National Enquirer broke the story, Edwards had Young say the baby was his. Then Young was put in charge of ferrying the pregnant Hunter form rental house to rental house until she gave birth. Young and his wife have been engaged in legal battles with Hunter over ownership of an Edwards-Hunter sex tape

Why didn’t Edwards reach a plea agreement?

Edwards had a chance to reach a plea deal and avoid the indictment, but he’s chosen instead to fight it, risking a possible jail sentence. According to anonymous sources cited by The Washington Post, Edwards refused the deal because he wasn’t willing to make as strong an admission of guilt as the prosecutors wanted. This jibes with The New York Times’ reading, which is that while Edwards has admitted he used campaign funds to hide his affair for private purposes—to hide it from his wife—he denies that he used them to hide the affair to save his campaign. Edwards’ lawyers are confident the government can’t prove the latter.

Will Edwards’ defense hold up in court?

Edwards’ is a pretty fine distinction. But it’s a key one for the grand jury’s case. The indictment claims that the former senator’s image as a family man was central to his campaign and that he had to hide his affair to protect that image. Therefore, money given to cover it up was a campaign contribution and subject to federal laws.

How will the proceedings play out?

The trial looks like it will be long and messy, but it may make for an exciting legal battle. On the prosecution’s side, there is Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer, who counseled President Bill Clinton during his impeachment hearings over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Defending Edwards, himself one of the nation’s most well-known trial lawyers, is Gregory Craig, formerly President Obama’s White House counsel and director of the team that defended Clinton against impeachment.

Who is Johnny Edwards?

A minor revelation: It turns out “John” is short for “Johnny.” The name of the case is United States v. Johnny Reid Edwards.