Why John Edwards Is (Maybe) Getting Indicted

The nuances of whether payments to his mistress violated campaign laws

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With speculation swirling that former senator and two-time presidential hopeful John Edwards could soon be charged with misusing campaign donations to cover-up his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, we realized we have no idea why a grand jury is (maybe) going to indict the two-time presidential candidate. Though Edwards carried on an affair while his wife was fighting cancer and lied about it, none of that is technically a crime. Edwards' reputation may be in tatters, but why is his head on the chopping block.

What Happened?
The facts at the center of the investigation involve two of Edwards' campaign donors--Bunny Mellon and Fred Baron--who are said to have made $700,000 payments to Hunter. Edwards is not accused of reaching into his campaign coffers directly to pay his mistress off. And Mellon and Baron's payments were in the form of personal checks. "The key question is, were campaign finance laws broken? What did John Edwards know about the people who were funding the coverup, primarily Bunny Mellon and Fred Baron?" says Raleigh-Durham ABC reporter Steve Daniels (via a Q&A with Salon's Justin Elliott).

How Would That Violate Campaign Finance Laws?
Daniels says that if Edwards knew that Mellon and Baron were paying hush money to Hunter, "that could be a violation of federal law.....I've been told by people close to the case that the key point there would be that the coverup was central to electing John Edwards president. Absent his run for president, there wouldn't be a campaign finance law violation." In the hallowed tradition of the cover up being worse than the crime Daniels notes that Edwards, in an interview with ABC News, initially "said that if anybody donated money, he was unaware of it." But new voicemails obtained by a North Carolina television station appear to show Edwards "in frequent contact with Fred Baron and with Bunny Mellon" and suggest he "may have known about their involvement in the coverup." This would back up the testimony of ex-aide Andrew Young who has said "very definitively that he was working at the direction of both John Edwards and Fred Baron. If that is the case," says Daniels, "that could be a violation of federal law."

Wait, Mistress Hush Money Is Regulated by the FEC?
That's what The Daily Caller's Mickey Kaus, no friend of Edwards, is wondering. He's skeptical of the line of reasoning described by Daniels since Edwards had plenty of personal reasons to keep his affair with Hunter and their child secret. The legal theory that buying Hunter's silence "was really a campaign expense and should have been paid for out of campaign funds," Kaus writes, raises another question: if Edwards had used money from his campaign coffers to pay off Hunter, "Don’t you think prosecutors would now be thinking of indicting him for an improper use of campaign funds?"

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.