The Edwards Indictment Explained: What Did Johnny Do? (Allegedly)

The fall from grace of former presidential and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, while not unprecedented, has been epic. Edwards has gone from the poster boy of the American Dream to the quintessential politician behaving badly.

The question is, will Edwards go from disgraced politician to criminal? Edwards was indicted on federal criminal charges stemming from his 2008 presidential campaign and affair with videographer/former campaign aide Rielle Hunter. Specifically, in the in the 19-page indictment which contains six felony charges, the government charged Edwards with accepting close to a million dollars in campaign donations which were actually used to keep his affair with Hunter secret.

The factual background is salacious and disturbing. Edwards cheated on his terminally ill wife and then lied about it. And then lied about it again. And then he lied about it some more. If convicted, however, it must be only because he violated campaign finance laws, and not because he acted like a jerk. The second part is, as we say, already well settled.

The legal argument is, well, a bit muddy and presents some unique questions. Much more typically, campaign donations used for a personal benefit are handled as civil cases, where a fine, not a prison sentence, is imposed. The government will need to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that money given to Edwards to be sent to Hunter falls within the definition of a "contribution" -- which is "anything of value" given "for the purpose of influencing any election for federal office." Hence the question is whether the money given to Edwards to be sent to Hunter (to keep her quiet and out of the public eye) was given in order to influence his campaign. The government argues that it was, because maintaining Edwards' all-American, squeaky-clean image was key to the campaign. Edwards' defense is and will be that the money was given to hide his affair with Hunter, but not to bolster is campaign.

If those donations were in fact "campaign contributions" then they were over the legal limits and went undisclosed. The government will further have to show that Edwards had intent to knowingly and willfully violated the law. Edwards has already expressly disclaimed such intent. The government faces an uphill battle.