A federal grand jury in North Carolina has spent two years looking into charges… (Jim R. Bounds, AP )
As the government neared a decision on whether to indict former Sen. John Edwards on criminal campaign finance violations in connection with a sex scandal, his attorney furiously denied Wednesday that he had broken the law, or even that any law applied to the situation.
"John Edwards has done wrong in his life — and he knows it better than anyone — but he did not break the law," said his attorney, former White House Counsel Gregory Craig. "The government's theory is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law. It is novel and untested. There is no civil or criminal precedent for such a prosecution."
A federal grand jury in North Carolina has spent two years looking into charges that Edwards violated campaign finance law by using money from two supporters to keep his pregnant mistress and a former aide out of sight while he sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Campaign contributions may not be used for personal expenses.
The Justice Department declined to comment.
Edwards, who was John F. Kerry's vice presidential running mate in 2004, admitted fathering a child with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter shortly after his wife's breast cancer had recurred. Elizabeth Edwards died in December.
If Edwards, 57, could reach a deal with prosecutors, he would probably have to surrender his license to practice law to avoid a potentially humiliating trial. But Craig's strident tone sounded as if Edwards was not considering a deal.
"The Justice Department has wasted millions of dollars and thousands of hours on a matter more appropriately a topic for the Federal Election Commission to consider, not a criminal court," Craig said.
Resolution of the investigation would be a long-awaited coda to a sordid and protracted political scandal.
Edwards, a wealthy personal injury attorney whose populist message about "two Americas" resonated with Democrats, refused for years to level with his family and the public about the true nature of his relationship with Hunter.
The National Enquirer first revealed it in 2007, weeks after he and Elizabeth had renewed their wedding vows. The story, Edwards said on the campaign trail, was "completely untrue, ridiculous. Anyone who knows me knows that I have been in love with the same woman 30-plus years."
In a 2008 television interview when he was no longer running for president, Edwards apologized for straying with Hunter but denied fathering her child.
It wasn't until January 2010 that Edwards admitted he was the father of Frances Quinn Hunter, now 3. His confession came days before publication of "The Politician," a tell-all book by former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who played a pivotal role in the deceit.
In an effort to protect his political career from the fallout of a sex scandal, Edwards had engineered a number of bizarre turns. In late 2007, he allowed Young, a married father of three, to falsely admit fathering Hunter's baby. Young and his family went into seclusion with Hunter, staying in luxury homes and hotels around the country to avoid the media.
It was the payment mechanism for this ruse that led to the government's investigation.
The money came from two Edwards supporters — his national campaign finance chairman, Fred Baron, who died in 2008, and banking heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who is 100.
In an interview last year, Young said Baron provided hundreds of thousands of dollars and loaned his Aspen, Colo., estate to the Youngs and Hunter. Mellon provided about $700,000. Young said he and Edwards called her contributions "Bunny money."
According to Mellon's attorney, she gave the money to Edwards as a personal gift and filed a gift tax return.
"She intended it for his personal use and had no understanding of what his need was and where the money would go," her attorney, Alexander Forger, told the Associated Press in January 2010.
But prosecutors likely think the money constituted campaign contributions because it was used to preserve Edwards' political viability.
"The government originally investigated allegations that Sen. Edwards' campaign funds were misused, but continued its pursuit even after finding that not one penny from the Edwards campaign was involved," Craig said Wednesday.
Hunter kept such a low profile that Time magazine headlined a February 2010 profile "The Quiet Dignity of Rielle Hunter." A month later, however, she introduced herself to the public in spectacular fashion, giving GQ magazine an interview and posing for photographs in a shirt with no pants.
A few months earlier, in January 2010, she had sued Young and his wife, Cheri, for invasion of privacy, demanding the return of a videotape she said they had stolen. The Youngs claimed that the tape, purportedly showing Hunter and Edwards having sex, had been abandoned by Hunter when she moved out of their home. That civil suit is pending in North Carolina.
Edwards is raising his and Elizabeth's two youngest children, who are still school age. An older daughter, Cate, is an attorney. Their son Wade died in 1996 at 16. Both Edwardses often cited Wade's death as the reason John Edwards entered politics.
"The Politician" is being made into a movie, directed by Aaron Sorkin.