• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

John Edwards pleads not guilty to finance charges

June 3, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Former presidential hopeful John Edwards pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges that he secretly spent more than $925,000 of campaign funds to keep his mistress, Rielle Hunter, in hiding during his 2008 presidential campaign.

A National Enquirer reporter helped break the story at the Beverly Hills Hilton. Alan Butterfield confronted the former senator to ask him about his affair and lovechild with Hunter after just leaving her hotel room.

"At first, 'hey Mr. Edwards were you just with Rielle Hunter?" said Butterfield. "And he just looked stunned and shocked. We said, 'hey does your sick wife Elizabeth know about this? Didn't say anything.'"

The National Enquirer had already published photos of Hunter and the baby. After being cornered, Butterfield said Edwards ran to the bathroom for cover.

"It was sort of a comedy sketch," said Butterfield. "Pulling on the door. He was pulling on the other end to keep us from going in."

He said hotel security eventually rescued Edwards, but that was the beginning of the end.

In a brief statement to a crowd of reporters and television news cameras that surrounded him outside the courthouse on Friday, Edwards said he never thought he was breaking the law.

"There is no question that I have done wrong," he said. "And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others. But I did not break the law, and I never, ever thought I was breaking the law."

Edwards did not have to post bond, but he had to surrender his passport and is not allowed to leave the continental U.S. He also can't have contact with one of the wealthy benefactors who gave him money that prosecutors say was used to hide the affair.

The case of USA v. Johnny Reid Edwards contains six counts, including conspiracy, four counts of illegal campaign contributions and one count of false statements. The indictment was returned in the Middle District of North Carolina Friday.

The indictment follows a two-year federal investigation that scoured through virtually every corner of Edwards' political career, including his stint as a U.S. senator, which ended seven years ago.

He had been negotiating for a plea bargain, but those talks ended without a deal.

The indictment said the payments made with money from two wealthy supporters were a scheme to protect Edwards' White House ambitions and his public image as a devoted family man.

The wealthy supporters are former campaign finance chairman Fred Baron and Rachel "Bunny" Bellon, the 100-year-old widow of banking heir Paul Mellon.

The indictment cited that $725,000 in payments made by Mellon and another $200,000 made by Baron were used to pay for Hunter's living and medical expenses and for chartered airfare, luxury hotels and nearly $60,000 in rent for a house in Santa Barbara, Calif. to keep her hidden from the public.

Edwards, 57, arrived at the federal courthouse with his daughter Cate on Friday afternoon for an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Auld. Federal officials listed him as being in custody.

Prosecutors said the spending was illegal because Edwards should have reported it on public campaign finance filings and because it exceeded the $2,300 limit per person for campaign contributions.

However, Edwards' attorney Gregory Craig said there's no way that anyone, including Edwards, would have known that the payments should be treated as campaign contributions.

"No one has ever been charged, either civilly or criminally, with the claims that have been brought against Sen. Edwards today. This is an unprecedented prosecution. No one would have known or should have known or could have been expected to know that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions. And there was no way Sen. Edwards knew that fact either," Craig said at the courthouse Friday.

"He has broken no law and we will defend this case vigorously," he added.

Edwards' attorneys argued the monetary contributions were gifts from friends of the former senator, who wanted to keep the 2007 affair a secret from Edwards' wife Elizabeth, who died of cancer in December.

At one point, an aide to Edwards, Andrew Young, claimed he was the father of Hunter's child in order to protect Edwards. Edwards eventually admitted he had an affair and that he was the father of hunter's child.

He claimed he had no idea about any financial scheme to keep Hunter out of the public eye. His aide is saying a different story.

"I had nothing to do with any money being paid and no knowledge of any money being paid, and if something was being paid, it wasn't being paid on my behalf," said Edwards.

"He knew about the money. He knew about the methodology and he knew about the sources," said Edwards' former aide.

If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the six counts against him. He also faces losing his law license.

First time white collar offenders usually don't receive prison terms in federal court, but the Justice Department typically presses for at least short prison sentences for public officials. While Edwards was a private citizen as a candidate, he was receiving taxpayer money for his presidential campaign.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Load Comments