Former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards was indicted by a federal grand jury Friday on campaign finance charges stemming from payments made to Rielle Hunter. As Jerry Markon reported:

Former vice presidential nominee John Edwards was indicted Friday on charges of violating federal election law for allegedly using nearly $1 million in illegal campaign donations to conceal an extramarital affair during his 2008 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The former U.S. senator from North Carolina was charged in a six-count indictment with conspiring to receive the contributions from political donors and using them to hide his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and her pregnancy from the public so his campaign would not be damaged. Edwards lost the nomination to Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, and the affair’s subsequent exposure destroyed Edwards’s once-promising political career.

The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury in North Carolina, says the illegal contributions paid for Hunter’s living and medical expenses, along with travel needed to shield her from reporters. Prosecutors said this violated federal election laws that limit individual contributions to a campaign and require reporting of donations.

“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 — for the presidency and all other elected offices — and we will vigorously pursue abuses of the kind alleged today.”

The indictment has come at the end of a long fall for John Edwards, whose potential had inspired the support to nearly catapult him to the second-highest political office in America. As Manuel Roig-Franzia explained:

Mary Elizabeth Anania — the woman who would become famous as Elizabeth Edwards — saw it. North Carolina voters saw it. Sen. John Kerry, (D-Mass.), saw it. Potential.

The man born Johnny Reid Edwards had it. Great gobs of potential.

John Edwards could have been a great husband, could have been an enduring statesman, could have been an occupant of the second-highest office in the land, could have been president. “The sky was the limit,” says James Andrews, North Carolina AFL-CIO president and an early political supporter.

Instead, America is now witnessing a new cascade of indignities in what has become the long, slow and torturous fall from grace of a political comet whose rise was anything but long and slow. The former vice-presidential nominee is facing federal charges related to the payment of money from his 2008 presidential campaign account to his mistress, the woman who would later be revealed as the mother of his child.

Edwards’s lawyer is already pleading his case, saying, “John Edwards has done wrong in his life — and he knows it better than anyone — but he did not break the law.”

The case against John Edwards will focus on the line between his public and private life, a boundary which has been the source of tension for many politicians. As AP reported:

The legal case against two-time presidential candidate John Edwards focuses on where to draw the line between the public and private in a politician’s life, a divide he riskily straddled throughout his entire career and family life.

There was much to draw the public to Edwards and his family that seemed so full of youthful vibrancy. He had a whip-smart wife who was at least his equal in political talent and a daughter getting her Ivy League education. The tow-headed youngest daughter and son coaxed smiles out of voters and even from the journalists invited to board the family’s campaign bus, eat their snacks and join their sing-alongs. The way that the Edwardses dealt with their son Wade’s death in an auto accident won sympathy.

But from the start, there were ruses. Edwards’ chief criminal accuser, former aide Andrew Young, writes in his book how Edwards would drive a beat-up Buick Park Avenue while on campaign business, stashing his BMW and Lexus to keep up the “everyman” image.

Now the central dispute over his indictment on felony charges is whether money that two of his supporters spent to keep his mistress in hiding were campaign contributions that should have been reported publicly, as prosecutors say, or private gifts from friends, as Edwards’ lawyers claim.

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