With trial, Edwards enters next chapter of political soap opera
(CNN) — On any given day in the fall of 2007, John Edwards could be heard preaching his populist prose to Iowa voters who eagerly packed into lumber barns, VFW halls and Culver restaurants across the state.
His message was less about the two Americas of his 2004 campaign — the haves and the have-nots — and more about fighting for the middle class and ending poverty in America.
The Democratic candidate had spent nearly all of 2007 logging days in Iowa traveling across the state’s 99 counties. He had every reason to believe he could be president. He felt the country would let then-Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama destroy each other and he would rise as the more experienced and safe nominee.
To many voters, Edwards could have been president of the United States. Five years later, the possibilities for Edwards are completely different.
Edwards’ criminal trial begins Monday in Greensboro, North Carolina.
He is charged with six felony and misdemeanor counts related to the money dealings of his failed presidential campaign.
Among other things, the government alleges that Edwards “knowingly and willfully” received nearly $1 million in illegal campaign contributions to hide his pregnant mistress from the public so he could continue his presidential bid. Edwards acknowledges that while his actions were wrong, they were not illegal. He could face up to 30 years in prison.
Edwards met Rielle Hunter in early 2006 at bar at The Regency Hotel in New York City. Hunter approached Edwards, not believing it was him. Later that evening, Edwards and Hunter met again, privately. The man who consistently spoke about two Americas began living two lives.
Hunter describes herself as a filmmaker. Born Lisa Jo Druck, she is believed to be the inspiration of a party girl character in a Jay McInerny novel. The 40-something Rielle told Edwards that she could help his campaign. Edwards hired her to produce a few videos that would present the politician in a more relaxed manner. The videos were called “webisodes” and were posted to Edwards’ campaign site.
In the first webisode, Edwards told Hunter on camera, “You train to be careful, to close off if it feels sensitive, to close off if it feels personal, and I have to tell myself, I’m trying hard to do it. But you know we’re so conditioned. We’re conditioned to say the same things … we’re conditioned to be political. And it’s hard to shed all of that. I can be in the middle of being what feels real and authentic to me, and I’ll get into a little reel, you know, in my head. I can see it happening, and I have to pull myself back out.”
The clip resurfaced later on YouTube.
In the end, four webisodes were made. However, instead of showing Edwards in a new light, the flirtatious on-camera banter only highlighted just how close Edwards and Hunter had become. Staffers began to suspect that Hunter had become more than a videographer to Edwards. That thought was fueled by Edwards’ insistence that Hunter be allowed to travel with him whenever either of them insisted.
Josh Brumberger was Edwards’ chief of staff when Hunter traveled with the campaign. On several occasions, he talked to Edwards about Hunter’s involvement with the campaign. One heated altercation ended with Edwards firing Brumberger, and by the fall of 2006, several longtime senior aides left the campaign amid Edwards’ refusal to end his relationship with Hunter, as detailed in “Game Change,” the book about the 2008 election.
On December 28, 2006, against the backdrop of a city trying to rebuild and revive itself, Edwards launched his presidential campaign in New Orleans. He vowed to strengthen the middle class, progressively end poverty and tackle the longstanding Democratic platform of health care.
But just as the campaign got off the ground, it hit turbulence. In March 2007, Elizabeth Edwards announced she had breast cancer for the second time and it was incurable. The Edwardses wound up continuing the campaign. In the weeks after the devastating discovery, internal campaign polling showed Edwards surging ahead of Clinton and Obama in Iowa.
Meanwhile, when the campaign klieg lights were off, Edwards and Hunter were still on. Over the course of the summer, Hunter had become pregnant. And to complicate things, Edwards was swimming in a pool of bad press — he had received several $400 haircuts and had made a six-figure salary for working for a hedge fund that was linked to subprime lending and foreclosed homes.
Enter Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. The wealthy banking heiress and widow, who was once a close friend of Jacqueline Kennedy, had been a supporter of Edwards since the 2004 election. When she found out about the haircuts, she allegedly directed Andrew Young, Edwards’ personal aide, to forward all bills to her.
In a note to Edwards received by Young, a person described in the indictment as Person C and believed to be Mellon wrote, “The timing of your telephone call on Friday was ‘witchy.’ I was sitting alone in a grim mood — furious that the press attacked Senator Edwards on the price of a haircut. But it inspired me — from now on, all haircuts, etc., that are necessary and important for his campaign — please send the bills to me — it’s a way to help our friend without government restrictions.”
After already contributing to Edwards the maximum amount under law, Mellon provided additional money to Edwards. According to court documents, between June 2007 and January 2008, Mellon allegedly wrote personal checks payable to a friend, hiding that she was giving money to Edwards.
To throw people off, Mellon is accused of falsely listing items of furniture on memo lines of checks such as “chairs,” “antique Charleston table” and “book case.” The checks were made out to Young’s wife in her maiden name and were deposited into accounts controlled by her and Young. As Edwards and Young planned, Young allegedly used the money to provide Hunter with rent, furniture, care, living expense, medical visits and prenatal care.
In total, the now 101-year-old Mellon gave Edwards seven checks ranging from $10,000 to $200,000 from June 2007 to January 2008.
On October 10, 2007, the National Enquirer ran its first story saying Edwards was having an affair. The next day while campaigning in Summerton, South Carolina, Edwards denied the report and said it was “tabloid trash.” With tabloid reporters and photographers chasing Hunter and publishing photos of her pregnant, a second wealthy donor came forward. Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who is now deceased, was the national finance chair of the campaign.
Court documents show that from December 2007 to January 2008, Baron allegedly wrote nine checks ranging from $9,000 to $58,000. The money was used for Young to hide a pregnant Hunter from the media, as he falsely claimed paternity for her child. Baron’s money was used to charter a private jet for trips to Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Aspen, Colorado; San Diego and Santa Barbara, California.
Things weren’t faring better for Edwards on the trail. He placed second in the Iowa caucuses and following disappointing losses in New Hampshire and South Carolina he ended his campaign for president on January 30, 2008.
Reporters remained persistent, continuing to ask Edwards if he was having an affair as it was rumored in Democratic circles that he was secretly trying to broker a deal for vice president or attorney general if Clinton or Obama was elected. In February 2008, Hunter and Edwards’ child was born.
On August 8, 2008, after repeated denials, Edwards admitted he had an affair with Hunter in an interview with ABC’s Bob Woodruff. During the interview, when asked if he was the father of Hunter’s child, he responded, “That is absolutely not true.” When asked if there was money paid to try to cover up his affair with Hunter, Edwards stated, “I’ve never paid a dime of money to any of the people that are involved. I never asked anybody to pay a dime of money, never been told that any money has been paid. Nothing has been done at my request. So if the allegation is that somehow I participated in the payment of money, that is a lie.”
While his name was not on the birth certificate, Edwards would eventually claim paternity and apologize for denying the baby was his child.
Following the mea culpa, it seemed that Edwards’ fall from grace had finally ended. But it got worse. In February 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice acknowledged they had opened an investigation on Edwards regarding campaign finances.
By this point, his more than 30-year-old marriage was falling apart. John and Elizabeth separated and lived apart until Elizabeth Edwards succumbed to breast cancer. She died weeks before Christmas in 2010, with Edwards and their oldest daughter, Cate, at her bedside.
Edwards was now a widower and the sole caregiver to his young children with Elizabeth — Emma Claire and Jack, then 12 and 10 — in addition to providing financial support for Quinn, his daughter with Hunter.
For Edwards, life got worse. After testimony from a cast of former staffers, including Hunter, Mellon and Young, who had published a scandalous tell all-book, a grand jury indicted him on June 3, 2011.
Edwards was indicted on six charges: one count of conspiracy, four counts of illegal campaign contributions and one count of making false statements. Each offense is punishable to up to five years in prison and fines, totaling up to 30 years in prison.
At the heart of the government’s case is campaign finance law, specifically whether Edwards violated the Election Act. Established in 1971, the Election Act states that to restrict the influence that any one person can have on the outcome of a primary election for president, the most any individual could contribute to any candidate for that primary election is $2,300.
Prosecutors will argue that Edwards accepted and received contributions from Mellon and Baron in excess of the limits of the Election Act. Court documents detail that Edwards accepted about $725,000 from Mellon and more than $200,000 from Baron. These unlawful contributions were then used to pay for Hunter’s living and medical expenses and to pay for travel and accommodations to keep Hunter from the news media.
Additionally, prosecutors say Edwards concealed from the FEC and the public the contributions by filing false and misleading campaign finance reports.
Court documents conclude, “Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy and undermine Edwards’ presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to the criticism and the media scrutiny regarding the affair.”
Edwards’ defense is that the money he received from Mellon and Baron was for personal reasons, most importantly to protect his wife who was dying, and to protect his family. He contends that at no point throughout the ordeal did he ever think he was breaking the law.
Experts say the government has an uphill battle. This type of case is considered unprecedented in the arena of campaign finance, as there are many loopholes in the law.
After shuffling his legal team a few times, Edwards is represented by high profile attorney Abbe Lowell. Two additional lawyers from North Carolina will assist Lowell.
The trial is proceeding because Edwards refused a plea bargain that would have given him a few months in prison but would have allowed him to keep his law license.
U.S. District Court Attorney Catherine Eagles has selected 42 potential jurors. The first bit of business on Monday will be the final seating of 12 jurors and four alternates. After that, the trial will begin with opening arguments. It is expected to last anywhere from two to six weeks.