WASHINGTON — The US Justice Department said Wednesday it would drop its prosecution of former presidential hopeful John Edwards for using $1 million in campaign funds to support his pregnant mistress.
The federal campaign corruption case came to an end less than two weeks after a North Carolina jury deadlocked on five campaign finance fraud charges, leading the judge to declare a mistrial, and acquitted the one-time Democratic star on another.
During the six-week trial, jurors heard prosecutors and defense attorneys alike lay bare the extramarital affair with videographer Rielle Hunter that the Democratic presidential candidate embarked on during his second bid for the White House.
The lawyer turned politician saw his stellar career collapse after he fathered a child in 2007 with Hunter, whom he hired to assist his presidential campaign, and then lied about their affair to his wife Elizabeth, as she fought an ultimately fatal recurrence of cancer, and the public.
Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer did not detail prosecutors' reasons for dropping the case after the Justice Department filed its formal order for dismissal of the charges in federal court in Greensboro, North Carolina.
"We knew that this case -- like all campaign finance cases -- would be challenging," he added. "But it is our duty to bring hard cases when we believe that the facts and the law support charging a candidate for high office with a crime."
Edwards, 59, had faced up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of intentionally using funds from two wealthy donors to hide his affair for political reasons. He has maintained his innocence since being indicted last year.
The former North Carolina senator's lawyers expressed satisfaction at the case being over.
"While John has repeatedly admitted to his sins, he has also consistently asserted, as we demonstrated at the trial, that he did not violate any campaign law nor even imagined that any campaign laws could apply," his lawyers Abbe Lowell, Allison Van Laningham and Alan Duncan said in a statement.
"We are confident that the outcome of any new trial would have been the same. We are very glad that, after living under this cloud for over three years, John and his family can have their lives back and enjoy the peace they deserve."
His daughter Cate, a 30-year-old attorney, expressed relief via Twitter.
"Big sigh of relief. Ready to move forward with life," she said.
During the trial, Edwards was accused of using the donor funds to benefit Hunter, who worked on a campaign video for him and with whom he fathered a daughter, to cover up their affair.
The money came from a wealthy Texas lawyer, Fred Baron, who died in 2008, and Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, now 101, widow of banker Paul Mellon.
The defense introduced evidence during the trial showing that much of the funds -- about $800,000 of it -- ended up in the hands of former aide Andrew Young, and much of that went toward the construction of his $1.6 million North Carolina home.
Defense attorneys say Edwards did not ask for the money that was used to hide the affair, and that the contributions were unrelated to the campaign.