How Good Is the Feds' Case Against John Edwards?

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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."

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The Department of Justice unit to handle the case botched their last major investigation. The Justice unit that will now prosecute Edwards, the Public Integrity Section, is the same one that famously mishandled the 2009 investigation of the late Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. The unit prosecuted Stevens on seven felonies for not disclosing gifts, but the tables turned when a judge dismissed the conviction in order to investigate whether the federal government's lawyers should face charges for not disclosing information to the defense during the trial. At the time, the judge said he had "never seen mishandling and misconduct like what I have seen" with the Stevens case, and a lawyer familiar with the proceedings told the Miami Herald earlier this week, "If they bring something (against Edwards), they will have some redeeming to do."

On a separate note, all of this free publicity may be great for Rielle's upcoming book. A local ABC affiliate in Raleigh-Durham reports that Rielle Hunter has been shopping a book proposal to publishing executives in New York, but apparently she doesn't offer much insight into the case. "People who have read a rough draft of the book say Hunter talks about her relationship with John Edwards but do not get into details about the scandal and the effort to cover up the affair," the investigative team's report says. Hunter has already told her story to GQ and Oprah, but this would be her first attempt to make money from her involvement.

The charges by the way are very serious. A federal grand jury indicted former presidential candidate John Edwards on six counts of conspiracy, four counts of illegal campaign contributions and one count of perjury. Regardless of the outcome, the trial to come could tarnish Edwards public image irrevocably. 

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