Vail Daily column: With what crimes is John Edwards charged? | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: With what crimes is John Edwards charged?

Rohn K. Robbins
Vail Law
Vail, CO Colorado

Former Sen. John Edwards, currently on trial in federal court in Greensboro, N.C., has certainly gotten himself into a bit of a sticky wicket. And an awfully public sticky wicket at that.

If you haven’t been keeping score, the facts are these: While running for president of the United States in 2008, Edwards, whose wife had been diagnosed with the breast cancer that ultimately killed her, struck up an affair with one Rielle Hunter who he made first his campaign videographer and then made pregnant with his child. At first Edwards denied the affair but ultimately, in the face of overwhelming pressure, owned up.

A less than admirable state of (please excuse the pun) affairs, to be sure, but unfortunate couplings are certainly nothing new. Not even (or perhaps, especially) in the world of politics, privilege and power. One’s imagination need not stretch excessively to recall the tawdry Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky, eh-hem, “assignation.” And President John Kennedy, had he lived and occupied the White House in another era, might well have been the poster boy for indiscretion. More recently the Governator, apparently, sired, and then covered up for more than a decade, a love child of his own with the family’s hired help.

What, then, other than his perfect hair, is different about John Edwards? Why is he on trial and for precisely what?

Edwards is charged with six criminal counts of federal campaign finance violations. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. In simple terms, what Edwards is accused of is accepting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions allegedly employed in order to hush up his affair with Hunter and keep his presidential bid from falling off the rails.

Of the six charges, one involves conspiracy, four involve receiving illegal payments and one involves making false statements.

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A conspiracy involves an agreement made with someone else to commit a crime. It is not necessary to prove that the crime was actually committed or that the conspirator was involved in all stages of the planning or knew all of the details. All that needs to be proved is that there was a voluntary agreement to participate and some overt act by one of the conspirators in furtherance of the criminal plan. Accordingly, what Edwards is facing, among the other charges, is that he schemed or cooperated with at least one other person to put into effect a plan to commit (in this instance) federal campaign finance crimes.

The “indictment” (which is just a fancy way of saying that one has formally been charged with a serious crime) contends that Edwards and his co-conspirators solicited $725,000 from Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, the 100-year-old heiress to the Mellon banking fortune, and another $200,000 from Fred Baron, Edwards’s campaign finance chairman. Apparently, within the Edwards camp, Ms. Mellon’s largesse was known, perhaps not as haughtily as it now sounds, as “Bunny money”.

The money, so the indictment alleges, was used not only to enwrap the affair with what was intended to be a cloak of invisibility, but also to pay for Ms. Hunter’s prenatal care, travel, comfort and accommodations.

That Edwards, doing what most of us would likely do when caught in the bright glare of National Enquirer with his fingers in the cookie jar, tried to cover up his affair is not at issue. That is, so to speak, Edwards’ personal (here I go again) affair. What is at issue, though, is the allegation that the Bunny money and Mr. Baron’s contributions were, in fact, campaign donations and, as such, were subject to federal campaign finance laws. Those laws, in turn, set strict limits on the amounts that can be donated and received, and all such funds received are subject to public reporting. Not only were the Mellon and Baron donations wildly in excess of the $2,300 limit that an individual can give, but the public reporting of those funds was, well let’s just say, we’re still waiting.

Although Edwards claims the money was just a little help from his friends, the indictment says, alleging that the money was actually used for campaign purposes: if, the allegation goes, the public knew that he of the perfect hair was having an affair (especially in light of the fact that his near sainted wife, Elizabeth was fighting for her life), his campaign would have been, in the best of circumstances, in ruins.

“Mr. Edwards is alleged to have accepted more than $900,000 in an effort to conceal from the public facts that he believed would harm his candidacy,” Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a statement. “As this indictment shows, we will not permit candidates for high office to abuse their special ability to access the coffers of their political supporters to circumvent our election laws.”

Edwards’ defense is straightforward; rather than being used for campaign or political purposes, the money was, instead, used solely for personal reasons. If it was hush money, it was so in order to cover up the affair and hide from his wife. Maybe for a guy lambasted for his $400 haircuts it is fitting that how this comes out may teeter on the splitting of some awfully fine legal hairs.

Of at least passing interest is the fact that Edwards’ legal team is captained by Gregory B. Craig. “Greg or George who?” you may be asking. Well, if the name’s familiar, Mr. Craig was President Bill Clinton’s corner man during his impeachment proceedings. Mr. Craig has claimed that the government is trying an untested theory and applying a too-broad definition of campaign contributions.

Well, I guess we’ll see or, perhaps by the time this column sees print, we will have seen.

The consequences for Edwards should he be convicted are substantial. Beside the disgrace he has already suffered, his fall would be that much further and that much harder. He would almost certainly be disbarred as an attorney and the possibility of hard time and substantial fines is real.

It is fitting, too, perhaps, that as the money from his patrons, which was delivered through checks made out to a third party – one stashed in a box of chocolates – the wisdom of Forrest Gump may ultimately determine John Edwards’ fate. Like a box of chocolates, Mr. Edwards cannot be quite sure just what he may get.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, robbins@slblaw.com or robbins@colorado.net