RALEIGH, N.C. —Federal prosecutors on Friday alleged that the cover-up of John Edwards' affair and the resulting pregnancy were a criminal conspiracy, charging the former North Carolina senator with seeking more than $900,000 in hush money in violation of campaign finance disclosure law.
Edwards answered the charges within hours, facing a bank of cameras and scores of reporters and onlookers on the steps of the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem, N.C. His oldest daughter, Cate, stood beside him.
"I did not break the law," Edwards said. "And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law."
He did not take questions.
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Moments before, Edwards — a longtime successful trial lawyer who made millions in civil jury verdicts — sat inside a courtroom at the defendant's table surrounded by his elite legal team.
As the judge ticked through a series of questions about his rights, Edwards at one point flashed impatience.
Asked if he understood his right to remain silent, Edwards said: "Yes, sir, your honor, I am an attorney."
His lead lawyer, former White House counsel Gregory Craig, said that Edwards would plead not guilty. Edwards was released without bond.
A hearing is set for next month for Edwards to formally enter a plea to the six charges: One count of conspiracy, one count of making false statements and four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions.
Prosecutors said they brought the charges because no one is above the law: "We will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said.
Edwards' legal team promised a vigorous courtroom fight.
A former chairman of the Federal Election Commission issued a statement through Edwards' legal team that called the charges misguided and based on an erroneous reading of the law. The commission administers campaign finance law.
"A criminal prosecution of a candidate on these facts would be outside anything I would expect after decades of experience with the campaign finance laws," Scott E. Thomas, an FEC commissioner for 20 years, said.
Just Day One
It all amounted to Day One of an Edwards trial after two years of secret probing by the FBI, IRS and prosecutors in Raleigh and Washington.
The charges came as forecast by widespread news reporting over the past week.
But it followed weeks of furious debate about the law between the sides and, ultimately, secret negotiations over a possible plea. A plea was under serious discussion almost until the moment the grand jury convened to hear the charges at midmorning.
Edwards had rejected deals to enter a plea to a felony charge, which would have spared a trial and an uncertain outcome.
The News & Observer has learned that Edwards also turned down a last-minute offer of a plea to three misdemeanor charges. Edwards rejected that deal because it still would have likely included some type of prison sentence, as much as six months, according to two people who were involved in the negotiations and refused to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the case.
A trial is not a certainty, as plea deals can still be reached after an indictment.
Friday's charges were in a focused, 19-page indictment that did not include many new details about a case that has been followed widely nationwide.
But there was one nugget: In the indictment, the government alleges that at least two campaign staffers will say that Edwards knew about the payments.
That directly contradicts public statements by Edwards and one of the donors that Edwards was ignorant about the money flow.
One of those staffers, Andrew Young, has written a book, appeared on national TV programs and is in a separate legal fight over a sex tape made of Edwards and the mistress, Rielle Hunter.
But the other person, who is not identified in the indictment by name and is described only as a former employee of the campaign, would apparently testify that Edwards knew money from Texas lawyer Fred Baron was being used to hide Hunter from the media, a core element of the prosecution. Baron was Edwards' campaign finance chairman.
"Edwards told the employee that, during his presidential campaign, he was aware that (Baron) had provided money and made expenditures to support and hide (Hunter) from the media," the indictment says. "Edwards further told the employee that this was a huge issue and that for 'legal and practical reasons' it should not be mentioned."