“It’s not illegal to be a pig,” said Brett Kappel, a Washington campaign finance expert who has worked for Republicans and Democrats. “Is what Edwards did slimy? Absolutely. Everyone will agree it was reprehensible. But it’s not a crime.”
Some good-government groups welcomed the Justice Department’s decision to charge Edwards in a six-count indictment that says he helped solicit what prosecutors called nearly $1 million in illegal contributions from political donors. Prosecutors said his motive was to hide his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and her pregnancy from the public and media.
The payments, which covered Hunter’s living, medical and other expenses, are at the heart of the dispute. Prosecutors say that they were campaign contributions because they were meant to prevent Edwards’s 2008 presidential bid from collapsing if the affair was discovered. They say the contributions also exceeded legal limits.
Defense lawyers are expected to argue that the funds never went to the campaign and were intended as gifts from two Edwards supporters. The disclosure of Edwards’s affair with Hunter, and his initial denials that he fathered a child with her, wound up destroying his once-promising political career.
The indictment, returned in federal court in North Carolina, retells the familiar and sordid details of the Edwards saga, arguing that they were part of an elaborate criminal conspiracy. It says Edwards and an aide plotted to solicit the contributions, some of which went to house Hunter at fancy hotels.
One of the donors, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who is 100, is quoted as offering to help pay some of Edwards’s bills as “a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”
“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 laws,” said Lanny A. Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “Our campaign finance system is designed to preserve the integrity of democratic elections . . . and we will vigorously pursue abuses of the kind alleged today.”
The hotly contested case will pose another challenge for Justice’s Public Integrity Section, which has been recovering from the collapse of its 2008 case against the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Stevens was convicted on corruption charges, but prosecutorial wrongdoing led Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to ask the judge to drop the case in 2009. The section has won eight trials nationwide since January.