John Edwards

04.20.12

John Edwards Heads to Court

As the trial of the former presidential candidate gets underway in North Carolina, the verdict may hinge on which admitted liar the jury believes. Diane Dimond reports.

Johnny Reid Edwards has fallen faster, further, and more completely than any other national politician on the modern American stage. The son of a North Carolina mill worker who rose to become a United States senator and a two-time Democratic presidential candidate—in 2004 and 2008—Edwards ultimately destroyed his own career by repeatedly lying about his personal life and asking others to lie for him.

Now, federal prosecutors allege it was more than just the lies told about a mistress and a love child, but Edwards’s expenditure of nearly a million dollars of federal campaign money to cover up the embarrassing situation that resulted in him crossing the line from simple cad to criminal. 

Edward’s camp does not deny spending the money but insists it was not from federal campaign coffers.

The 58-year-old Edwards is facing six felony counts in the action entitled The United States vs. Johnny Reid Edwards, which is set to go before a jury next week in Greensboro, N.C. (opening statements are scheduled to begin Monday, but may slip if jury selection isn’t completed). The charges against Edwards include conspiracy, making false statements, and four charges that he accepted illegal campaign contributions from two wealthy donors who had already given his campaign the maximum allowed. If convicted, Edwards could face a 30-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $1.5 million. Edwards has steadfastly maintained he is innocent of the charges.

But the public record proves Edwards is not so innocent of misleading the more than 100,000 supporters of his last presidential race who, collectively, helped him raise more than $23 million in campaign money. In multiple statements and media interviews, Edwards not only lied about an extramarital affair with his campaign videographer, Rielle Hunter (at first he calling it just a “tabloid trash story”), he repeatedly lied about being the father of their child. Ultimately, Edwards was forced to admit paternity and he publically apologized to his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Quinn, just days before a sizzling tell-all book was released, written by former top campaign staffer Andrew Young. 

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Young is sure to be a key witness for the prosecution team as they present the Edwards-Hunter saga to the jury. As The Daily Beast reported previously, there were some 20 people in on the “Hide Hunter” project and many of their names appear on a recently released witness list.

In his book, The Politician, Young wrote that he had originally lied, too, by issuing a written statement to the media that he was the father of Hunter’s baby. Young said he agreed to tell the whopper as a favor to his boss, who was trying to keep his shameful secret from Mrs. Edwards as she was dying of cancer. (In addition, Young told me in a series of interviews in the spring and summer of 2010 that John Edwards was fearful that if the truth got out about the baby during the presidential campaign, it would spoil his fundraising ability and his election chances.)  

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John Edwards speaks out after his indictment

Young’s book chronicled in detail how he and his wife, Cheri, harbored the pregnant Hunter and traveled the country, staying in luxury safe houses in places like Santa Barbara, Calif., and Aspen, Colo. The Youngs’ mission was to keep the talkative Hunter away from the prying press—specifically the dogged National Enquirer, which was ultimately nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its explosive Edwards coverage. Barry Levine, the Enquirer’s executive editor, told The Daily Beast, “We stayed on the story, for more than two years, because the guy was indeed running for president, and when he no longer was, there was an indication he could have ended up as Obama’s attorney general.”  Speaking from his New York office, Levine added, “The cheating and the cover-up went to the heart of his character.”

There have been published hints about the defense team’s trial strategy.  Edwards's team seems determined to focus on the genesis of the almost $1 million used for “Operation Hide Hunter.” They will argue that 101-year-old philanthropist Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and the campaign’s late money man Fred Baron, simply gave that money to candidate Edwards as a personal gift and not a campaign contribution. 

(The New York Times has reported that the proper gift taxes were paid on the money, although the timing of any such payment isn’t known and could be vital for the defense claim to be believed. Was the gift tax paid right away, or well after the fact to augment the claim that it was a gift?)

It is not yet known whether Edwards will testify in his own defense, but it is likely jurors will hear from him during trial. Included in the prosecution’s list of 700 possible exhibits are voicemails left by Edwards for Andrew Young. If the former candidate can be heard discussing specific financial details or the “Hide Hunter” project generally, it could be powerful evidence.

“The idea that payments made by two longtime friends of Mr. Edwards to his mistress are ‘campaign contributions’,” wrote the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, “… [is] ludicrous, absurd and stupid.”

Federal corruption prosecutors will present witnesses to try to show that Mellon and Baron knew the money was urgently needed for the hiding mission and critical for the continuation of the campaign. They will also try to prove that the wealthy John Edwards personally and knowingly ordered those funds earmarked for Hunter’s upkeep. 

The Edwards defense got early friend-of-the-court assistance from an unlikely source. A brief filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington maintains the Department of Justice has “misplaced its priorities” by going after the two-time presidential candidate. “The idea that payments made by two longtime friends of Mr. Edwards to his mistress are ‘campaign contributions’ … (is) ludicrous, absurd and stupid…The people who gave the money were close personal friends.” Unfortunately, neither Mellon nor Baron will be on hand to testify. Baron died in October 2008 and the aging Mellon’s medical condition is such that she will be represented by a longtime legal adviser who will testify on her behalf.

In the end, the venue for this trial could prove most important. It is likely that not many North Carolina jurors have friends who are generous enough to gift them with a million dollars. It is probable that over the years the jurors heard or read coverage of Edwards’s political exploits and his extramarital behavior while his wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer. (She passed away in December 2010.) The National Enquirer, for example, published more than 100 stories on Edward’s self-inflicted troubles, and Levine said, “I don’t know specific circulation numbers for North Carolina but … we sold out down there many times.”

Also, the jurors may have paid attention to the mountain of media coverage of a recently settled lawsuit filed by Rielle Hunter against Andrew and Cheri Young.  Part of the case had to do with recovery of what court documents referred to as a “sex tape” made on the campaign trail during the early days of Hunter’s pregnancy.

There’s also no denying that North Carolina exists within the Bible Belt. That may have been the reason U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles felt it necessary to address the jury pool on its first day, “This is not a case about whether Mr. Edwards was a good husband or a politician” she said looking out at the potential arbiters of Edward’s fate. “It’s about whether he violated campaign-finance laws ... The Constitution says trial by jury, not trial by Internet or trial by gossip.”