Criminal charges are likely to be filed Friday against John Edwards, the culmination of a two-year federal investigation into money used to cover up his extramarital affair during the 2008 presidential election.
Edwards’ attorney Greg Craig was traveling to meet Friday with prosecutors in North Carolina, an indication that the former presidential candidate is likely to charged, either in a grand jury indictment or in a negotiated charge to which he would plead guilty.
A person with knowledge of the investigation said Craig, a Washington lawyer who was President Barack Obama’s first White House counsel, planned to be in his client’s home state Friday, where prosecutors were prepared to file charges. The source insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the private negotiations.
Edwards has had North Carolina representation throughout the investigation, but Craig was brought onto the team earlier this year when the decision whether to charge him still rested with Justice Department officials in Washington.
Those officials have approved criminal charges; they decided that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that two Edwards donors gave to help keep his mistress, in hiding were contributions that should have been reported publicly by his campaign fund because they aided his bid for the Democratic White House nomination. Edwards’ lawyers have argued that the funds were gifts from old friends intended to keep the affair a secret from his wife, Elizabeth, who died of cancer in December.
A plea to a felony charge involving campaign finances could strip Edwards of his law license and end any hope he could work as an attorney for the poor. And a trial would mean more sordid stories about his campaign affair and the child he fathered during it, further battering his reputation.
Even if he were to win the case, it appears the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee would do so by making a humiliating argument: that money used to keep his mistress and out-of-wedlock child in hiding was intended to shield the affair from his cancer-stricken wife — not to aid his candidacy, which is what prosecutors believe.
“Trial or not, John Edwards is the Charlie Sheen of American politics — great hair and no chance for rehabilitation,” said Democratic consultant Jack Quinn.
Political sex scandals can either be just a career glitch (think Newt Gingrich, who recently announced a run for the presidency) or a career-ender (think Mark Foley, who recently declined a run for mayor of West Palm Beach, Fla.). Many Democrats believe Edwards falls into the latter category, as someone who faces little chance of revitalizing his image even if he emerges victorious from his legal case.
Edwards’ attorneys have denounced the investigation as a waste of resources and contend he did not violate the law.
Edwards has said he hopes that once this case is behind him he can revive his legal career, specializing in helping the victims of poverty he championed on the campaign trail. However, a lawyer in North Carolina who pleads guilty or no contest to a criminal offense faces disciplinary action by the State Bar, ranging from a mild rebuke to a loss of license to practice.
The case against Edwards focused on the private money used to keep Edwards’ mistress in hiding. Andrew Young, a former aide to Edwards, initially claimed paternity of mistress Rielle Hunter’s child and traveled around the country keeping her in seclusion. Young has said he received hundreds of thousands of dollars of support from two wealthy Edwards donors.
Another dent in an Edwards’ revival is moving ahead in civil court, where Young and Hunter are battling over a purported sex tape involving the former candidate. Edwards has been deposed as part of that lawsuit.
Gary Pearce, a Democratic strategist who helped get Edwards elected to the Senate, said he’d prefer to see Edwards take a plea deal and avoid a grueling trial that would rehash past sins.
“We’ve all had enough,” said Pearce, who doesn’t think Edwards will ever be able to return to politics.
Edwards, 57, has spent much of his time in seclusion since he first admitted the affair in 2008. He eventually admitted to fathering a child with Hunter. His wife died of cancer last year.
Several Democrats said Edwards, 57, could someday return to making a living but won’t be able to strengthen his image to a prominent position.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who helped former President Bill Clinton through his cheating scandal, said Edwards’ errors were particularly egregious even in an American society used to seeing political leaders stumble.
“The conduct went beyond what people expect and assume from politicians,” Lehane said.