Former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards arrives outside… (Gerry Broome / Associated…)
DURHAM, N.C. -- Jury selection begins Thursday in the federal election corruption trial of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, who is accused of conspiring to violate campaign laws, accepting illegal contributions and making false statements.
Edwards, 58, a 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, made millions in courtrooms as a personal injury lawyer in North Carolina. Now he faces a 30-year prison sentence and up to $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all six federal counts against him.
The government has accused Edwards of using nearly $1 million in donations from two wealthy benefactors to hide an extramarital affair during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign for president. Prosecutors say Edwards solicited the money to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer who was pregnant with Edwards’ child.
Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth Edwards, who died in December 2010, was fighting breast cancer at the time. She had served as her husband’s chief policy advisor. The couple separated in 2010 after Edwards admitted the affair and said he was the father of Hunter’s daughter, Frances Quinn, born in February 2008.
Edwards had initially denied the affair. According to the 2011 indictment, he asked a trusted campaign aide, Andrew Young, to falsely claim that he was the father. Young and his wife took Hunter into their North Carolina home, and later flew with Hunter around the country, staying in expensive hotels and private homes as Young tried to hide her from public view.
Young later turned on his boss, writing a tell-all book, "The Politician," about Edwards and taking from Hunter’s apartment a sex tape showing an encounter between Edwards and his mistress. After Hunter sued Young to have the tape returned, a North Carolina judge in February ordered all copies destroyed.
Edwards’ lawyers have denied charges that the donated money was intended to influence the election, saying that Edwards intended only to keep his wife from finding out about the affair. His legal team has characterized the money as gifts, not campaign contributions, because they were not sent through the campaign’s accounts.
The money was provided by Edwards’ national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a 101-year-old heiress. Both had given the maximum $2,300 individual donations allowed under federal campaign laws.
"What I know with complete and absolute certainty is I didn't violate campaign laws and I never for a second believed I was violating campaign laws," Edwards told reporters outside the Greensboro, N.C., federal courthouse at a pretrial hearing in October. The trial was later delayed because of unspecified medical problems encountered by Edwards.
Before he was indicted, Edwards rejected a plea offer that would have allowed him to serve as little as six months in jail and keep his law license, the Associated Press has reported, citing two sources close to the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles has said she expects the trial in Greensboro to last about six weeks. The federal judicial district in central North Carolina includes Edwards’ hometown, the tiny mill town of Robbins, which Edwards often cited in campaign speeches extolling his humble working-class roots.
In his 2003 autobiography, "Four Trials," Edwards wrote of his faith in everyday citizens who sit on juries.
"They take in every movement, fact, word, hesitation, and glance," he wrote. "My faith in the wisdom of ordinary people took root in the mill towns of my youth. But the juries of my adulthood deepened that faith."