John Edwards indicted: What happens next?

The scandal-stained Democrat faces jail time over the coverup of his affair with Rielle Hunter. Here's a brief guide to the career-destroying mess

 John Edwards responds to the press after the disgraced politico was indicted for using campaign funds to cover up his 2008 affair.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Davis Turner)

On Friday afternoon, disgraced North Carolina Democrat John Edwards appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to charges that he illegally raised and spent nearly $1 million to hide his affair with former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter. Edwards — the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2004 and a top presidential candidate in 2008 — was indicted on six counts after a two-year investigation of the cover-up, which came during his 2008 campaign for the White House. Here, a brief guide to the case:

What are the details of this affair?

The basic facts are not in dispute. Edwards admits that, in 2008, when he was married and running for president, he had an affair with Hunter and fathered her child.

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So what is Edwards charged with?

The government alleges that Edwards received $925,000 in contributions from two wealthy donors (in amounts much larger than federal campaign law allows), failed to report the donations, and then misused the money to hide his affair with Hunter and avoid damaging his campaign. "A centerpiece of Edwards’ candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man," the indictment says. The gray area is whether the funds were actually intended to be campaign donations.

Where did these contributions come from?

Allegedly from former campaign finance chair Fred Baron, and Bunny Mellon, the 100-year-old widow of banking heir Paul Mellon. Ex-Edwards aide Andrew Young says Bunny Mellon funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to Edwards, sometimes hiding it in boxes of chocolates or masking it as decor-related expenses. According to the government, "Mellon wrote 'chairs' or 'antique Charleston table' or 'book case'" in the memo section of certain checks.

And how was the money spent?

Reportedly, on everything from charter jets and hotel bills to cash pay-offs. Funds were used to cover Hunter’s medical bills and other expenses (including those related to her child with Edwards). Other monies went to Young, who falsely claimed to be the child’s father to help Edwards cover up the affair. (Young later turned on Edwards and wrote a tell-all book).

So were these really illegal campaign contributions?

"This appears to be a unique interpretation of the campaign finance laws, given the fact that none of the money that went to Hunter actually ever passed through the Edwards for President campaign," says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Still, the government will likely push the fact that the money came from "long-time Edwards supporters who had already given money to his campaign in the past" and "believed they were contributing in some way to the Edwards campaign."

What does Edwards say?

The Democrat has previously conceded that he used this money to cover up his affair — but not for political purposes. He has maintained that he was trying to hide the affair from his wife, Elizabeth, who died in December 2010. Edwards said on Friday that "There is no question that I’ve done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong...But I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law."

Could he go to jail?

Edwards faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail on each of six counts and up to $1.5 million in fines. He could also potentially lose his law license. Though it was widely rumored that a plea deal was on the table, Edwards evidently decided to take his chances in court. "The decision to fight could lead to a long, messy, public trial and possible jail sentence for Mr. Edwards, or it could lead to his acquittal,” says Katharine Q. Seelye at The New York Times. It also “reflects confidence by some on the Edwards legal team that the government’s case would not hold up in court.”

What will Edwards’ legacy be?

His "name will be forever associated with the word 'sleaze' and 'hypocrite,'" says Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. "He makes other politicians’ sex scandals pale in comparison." Yes, whatever happens in court, Edwards was "exposed as a liar, a cheater, a fraud, and a terrible husband to a cancer-stricken wife," says Dan Amira at New York. "Let this be a lesson to all would-be philanderers: Always do the right thing and report your hush money."

Sources: New York, ABC, AP, Moderate Voice, Outside the Beltway, USA Today, Politico, New York Times, Patterico's Pontifications, Salon

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