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The John Edwards Cheat Sheet: What Are the Facts, and Do They Make Him a Criminal?

It almost goes without saying that a sex scandal and lovechild splashed in the headlines would have hurt—if not derailed—Edwards’ campaign.

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Is there specific evidence tying the donations to Edwards’ candidacy? In the indictment, prosecutors point to  a note between donor Rachel Mellon and Edwards’ aide Andrew Young. Around that time, Edwards and Young had been discussing individuals who could support Edwards’ mistress, who was pregnant with his child, according to the indictment. Young apparently gave Mellon a call. Here’s what she told Young, emphasis ours:

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 is a way to help our friend without government restrictions.

Mellon had by that time already contributed the most she could legally contribute to his campaign, but proceeded to write $725,000 in personal checks that ultimately went to Hunter’s living and medical expenses, the indictment alleged. The memo lines of the checks indicated they were for furniture items—“chairs,” “antique Charleston table,” “book case.” (Mellon’s legal team told the New York Times that the money was  a personal gift, and she didn’t know how Edwards used it.)

Edwards also accepted more than $200,000 from Baron, his former campaign finance chairman, which went to Hunter’s travel and accommodations. (Some of the facts here are contradictory: After news of the Edwards-Hunter affair broke, Baron said he sent money to keep Hunter  out of the media but he did so  without Edwards' knowledge. Along with denying paternity of Hunter’s child, Edwards said publicly in 2008 that “had no knowledge of any money being paid.” However, AP reported yesterday that prosecutors have notes between Edwards and a campaign writer that show Edwards  acknowledging he knew about Baron’s payments—though he said he didn’t ask for them.) 

Neither Mellon nor Baron are named in the indictment, but are listed as Person C and Person D, respectively.

So, why are legal experts skeptical of the government’s case? First, nobody can recall a similar case. And the lack of a clearly applicable legal precedent makes it risky. 

Plus, the standard of proof for a criminal case is higher than for a civil case. U.C. Irvine law professor and campaign finance expert Richard Hasen, who  wrote a good piece for Slate on the Edwards ordeal, wrote on his election law blog on Monday: “The law is murky and the facts are murky, and it is going to be very hard to prove in a criminal prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt that Edwards willfully violated clear law.”

Both sides have sought experts to bolster their interpretations of the law. Politico reported that the prosecution has been  seeking out former FEC commissioners to testify and has had at least one decline because the case “seems somewhat of a stretch.”

The Edwards legal team has retained two expert witnesses. One, former FEC chairman Scott Thomas, said it was his view that the payments “would not be considered to be either campaign contributions or campaign expenditures” according to campaign finance law, and that the government’s understanding of the law was incorrect. “A criminal prosecution of a candidate on these facts,”  Thomas wrote, “would be outside anything I would expect after decades of experience with the campaign finance laws.”

What’s at stake for Edwards—and for the Justice Department? If found guilty of the government’s charges, the already-disgraced Edwards would lose his law license and could face a maximum of five years in prison and a maximum $250,000 fine  on each of the indictment’s six counts.