John Edwards' Last Desperate Gamble

By Margolick, David | Newsweek, November 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

John Edwards' Last Desperate Gamble


Margolick, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Margolick

How do you defend an indefensible man? Start by enumerating his sins. Inside the upcoming trial, and why the disgraced former candidate decided to go for broke.

As the disgraced former presidential candidate John Edwards prepares for trial on criminal charges of accepting nearly $1 million in illegal contributions during the 2008 Democratic race, consider what his two election-law experts are prepared to concede.

Much of it is indisputably, painfully true: That Edwards was a cad, a purported family man who cheated on his wife as she was dying of cancer. That he did so with a certain juvenile glee, even letting his paramour, a New Age videographer named Rielle Hunter, tape one of their sexual encounters. That he was a serial liar, repeatedly and huffily insisting to his wife and the American public that such reports were "tabloid trash," that he'd had a fling rather than a two-year -affair, that the resulting baby girl wasn't his handiwork but that of a pathologically -sycophantic aide.

The two experts, Scott Thomas and Robert Lenhard, also concede, simply for the sake of legal argument, some points still in dispute: that Edwards had asked two wealthy benefactors--heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and his finance chair, Fred Baron--for hundreds of thousands of dollars to squirrel away Hunter from the press, with Mellon sending checks, hidden in chocolate boxes and ostensibly for antiques, that were quickly signed over to Edwards's aide.

Still, the Edwards legal team contends, he violated no laws: the money wasn't campaign contributions at all, but personal donations from Mellon and Baron to help a friend in a fix. It's a highly technical argument, one based on the hope--or prayer--that jurors can look beyond Edwards's scandals and focus on the law. Edwards, whose faith in juries enabled his meteoric political career in the first place, is now going to have his own put in front of one.

Interviews with key players and a review of documents in the case offer a picture of how Edwards's gold-plated legal team will attempt to get him off the hook. Just days ago, a federal judge in Greensboro, N.C., finally cleared the way for that to happen, refusing Edwards's attempt to throw out the charges. "After all these years, I finally get my day in court," Edwards said with his best game face on as he emerged from the courthouse.

The ruling by Judge Catherine Eagles sounded routine, but was in fact freighted. The case carries peril to all parties involved: not only for Edwards, but for the Justice Department and the Democratic Party.

For Edwards, a conviction would mean not just the final, humiliating tumble in his precipitous fall from grace, but up to five years in prison, plus a $1.5 million fine, the loss of his law license, and separation from his two youngest children. For the U.S. government, specifically the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, it is an opportunity to redeem itself after recent embarrassments, but it comes with great risk: a dubious principal witness, and an unorthodox and unprecedented expansion of the election law. For Democrats, the scheduled trial date in January comes at the start of a presidential-election year--an unpleasant time for further tawdry details to emerge of Edwards's dalliances with Hunter. And this spectacle is set to take place in North Carolina, a crucial tossup state that President Obama barely carried in 2008, and in which the Democrats will hold their national convention next summer.

Had both sides been less stubborn, they might have struck a deal. They did come close. With former Obama White House counsel Gregory Craig representing Edwards, the two sides negotiated right up until the moment in early June when a grand jury handed up the indictment.

But pleading to a felony would have cost Edwards his law license. And copping to a misdemeanor would have meant at least a brief stint in jail, away from his children Jack, 11, and Emma Clair, 13, whom he's now raising by himself. …

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