John Edwards's bad year just got a whole lot worse. Good Morning America crammed the severity of the case into two quick soundbytes when they announced the two-time presidential candidate's indictment. "The grand jury in Raleigh, North Carolina has indicted John Edwards--very serious crimes," George Stephanopoulos said when he broke the news. "This is such a mess," co-host Robin Roberts. "I mean, we have to keep in mind, this is one of the worst political downfalls ever!" Could the former trial lawyer go to jail for accepting money from wealthy donors in an attempt to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter during the 2008 campaign? His legal team apparently came up short in frantic attempts to avoid criminal charges, but how does their case look now? Here's a breakdown of what matters.
A 2000 Federal Election Commission opinion sets tough precedent for Edwards. The federal governments charges against Edwards basically boil down to whether or not gifts accepted by a candidate for federal office should be considered campaign contributions. Allegedly, Edwards helped orchestrate the payoffs to the tune of "$1 million in cash, private jets and hotel rooms to cover up the affair and Hunter's pregnancy." The Wall Street Journal reports that the FEC precedent for such a case, an opinion known as Harvey, doesn't bode well for Edwards:
In the 2000 opinion, a donor consulted the FEC about giving a $10,000 gift to a candidate “to express deep appreciation…for [forgoing] opportunities in the private sector in order to serve his country,” according to FEC documents. The donor said his gift wasn’t aimed at influencing the election, but the FEC ruled the money would be considered a campaign contribution and subject to regulation.
Edwards's lawyers may skirt around the Harvey decision. A source told CNN that this opinion, though, is on "shaky ground to base a federal prosecution on because it is not a black letter federal statute, and apparently has not been cited in any important case law, or legal authority behind any important court decisions." In that case, the donor--a businessman who incidentally founded a sex toy company, Ben Smith points out--wanted to give the money directly to the candidate. According to Ruth Marcus, however, lawyers could use the opinion to highlight a permissible distance between the Edwards and the donors. "In the Edwards situation, the money did not go to the candidate himself and it came from people with whom he had prior relationships," she wrote in a column. And further, "A single advisory opinion hardly seems like adequate notice that funneling money to Hunter could land Edwards in prison."