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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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First, a sex scandal, followed by a messy coverup and an even messier fessing-up. The sequence has become all but routine in Washington.

But the  criminal case against two-time Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is anything but run-of-the-mill. While campaign finance experts may not agree on whether the charges are merited, they seem to uniformly acknowledge that the charges against Edwards are unprecedented. Here’s a quick look at why, drawing from the prosecution's indictment, the defense's expert witnesses and what's been reported. 

What are the charges against Edwards, exactly? The government lays out its case in a federal grand jury indictment, which you can  read in its entirety. Essentially, Edwards is charged with violating campaign-finance law for accepting large sums of money from two wealthy supporters. The money went to concealing Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, from his wife and from the American electorate, the government alleges.

At issue here is whether the nearly $1 million in funds from longtime Edwards supporters Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and now-deceased Fred Baron were in fact campaign contributions. If they were, as the government alleges, the donations would violate both disclosure laws and contribution limits. The government also has to prove that Edwards knew about the payments. 

Edwards pleaded not guilty. He said he has personal regrets but never broke the law.

So what constitutes a campaign contribution? By law, a campaign contribution is “any gift, subscription, loan, advance, or deposit of money or anything of value made by any person  for the purpose of influencing any election for Federal office.”

The indictment  explains it this way:

Anything of value provided for the purpose of influencing the presidential election, including (a) contributions to a candidate and his/her campaign; (b) expenditures made in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with, or at the request of suggestion of, a candidate or his/her campaign; and (c) payments for personal expenses of a candidate unless they would have been made irrespective of the candidacy.

Ah, so the question is whether the money was meant to influence the campaign, right? Yes, and we'll see what the court decides. But it almost goes without saying that a sex scandal and lovechild splashed in the headlines would have hurt—if not derailed—Edwards’ campaign. 

Edwards’ legal team has reportedly countered that the money was merely intended to  hide the affair from Edwards’ cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and it had nothing to do with his protecting his campaign. 

Prosecutors evidently aren’t buying that the payments were just to protect Edwards’ marriage. In the  first paragraph of the 19-page indictment, prosecutors argued that Edwards’ “public image as a devoted family man” was a centerpiece of his candidacy, and that cultivating and publicizing that image was part of the campaign’s communication strategy for electoral success.

Also worth noting: Edwards once told ABC News that he had  spoken with Elizabeth about his infidelity in 2006, and yet the hush-money was paid out in 2007 and 2008.

The government’s case also leans on a 2000 advisory opinion from the Federal Election Commission in which a donor tried to give $10,000 in funds to candidates on the condition that the money was to “ be used solely for personal expenses,” and not for campaign purposes, according to the News & Observer. The donor’s reasoning was that he wanted to “express deep appreciation” to the candidate for giving up private sector opportunities to pursue public service. The FEC said no, ruling that personal donations are only permissible if they would have been made “irrespective of the candidacy."