Lawyers for Edwards said they will vigorously fight the charges, which include conspiracy, false statements and illegal campaign contributions. “This is an unprecedented prosecution,’’ said Gregory Craig, Edwards’s lawyer.
The indictment says Edwards conspired to receive and cover up illegal contributions of about $725,000 from an unidentified “Person C” and more than $200,000 from “Person D.’’ Person C is known to be Mellon, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and Person D is known to be Fred Baron, Edwards’s campaign finance chairman in 2008. Baron, a longtime Democratic party activist, died in October 2008.
Prosecutors said that the payments violated the $2,300 limit on contributions from individuals and that Edwards concealed them from the Federal Election Commission.
The indictment appears to try to show that Mellon and Baron knew they were doing something illicit. It cites Mellon’s note to “Person A” — known to be former Edwards aide Andrew Young — offering to help with Edwards’s expenses after he was criticized in the media for receiving a $400 haircut.
It quotes the person known to be Baron as writing a note to Young in an envelope stuffed with $1,000 cash: “Old Chinese saying: use cash, not credit cards.’’
Baron told the Associated Press two months before his death that Edwards had no knowledge of what he did. “I did it as a friend,’’ he said.
Legal experts said prosecutors will have difficulty showing that Mellon and Baron intended the funds as campaign contributions. “You have to show criminal intent. That’s a stretch,’’ said Stanley Brand, a Democratic campaign finance law expert. “One of them is dead, and the other is 100 years old.’’
He added, “I can’t remember any case where this type of criminal allegation was made in a campaign context.’’
Credibility a concern
Other experts said the government’s case will be hurt by its reliance on Young, who has admitted that he lied in claiming paternity of Hunter’s child and has been criticized over his handling of a purported sex tape of the two, which he had said he possessed.
Lawyers for Edwards “will seriously damage Young’s credibility,’’ said Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election lawyer, who said the government has “a decent case but definitely not a slam-dunk.’’
The charges came after the collapse of plea-bargain negotiations with the Justice Department. Sources familiar with the talks have said that Edwards, a single father since the death in December of his estranged wife, Elizabeth, had wanted to put the matter behind him.
A source close to the case would not specify why the talks collapsed but said, “Both parties moved heaven and earth to try to make it possible to resolve this short of a trial, and it just didn’t work.’’
Hunter was a videographer for Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign. After his initial denials, Edwards admitted in January 2010 to being the father of Hunter’s daughter, Quinn. Shortly afterward, he separated from his wife, a prominent Democratic activist.
In 2004, Edwards unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination, then ran for vice president with the eventual nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). Edwards did not seek reelection to the Senate seat from North Carolina that he had won in 1998. He suspended his second presidential campaign in January 2008 after poor showings in the initial primaries.
Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, called the allegations against Edwards “deeply disturbing” and praised the Justice Department for bringing the case.
“To let these actions pass without bringing them to a court of law would be to set a dangerous precedent,’’ she said.
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.