Given the typical cycle of American political scandals, John Edwards may one day get a shot at redemption. But as he went to trial Monday on allegations of breaking campaign finance laws, it was clear the erstwhile golden boy has likely not even hit bottom yet.
Twice a top Democratic contender for the presidency and John Kerry’s vice-presidential running mate in 2004, Mr. Edwards faces as many as 30 years in prison for allegedly using more than $900,000 (U.S.) in secret donations to hide an extramarital affair.
As Mr. Edwards sat in a Greensboro, N.C. courtroom, his signature coiffure unruffled despite his personal duress, his lawyers gave some indication of the challenge they face separating the dry facts of the case from the sad and seedy circumstances that surround them and which have turned the Edwards saga into a tabloid morality tale.
“John Edwards is a man who has committed many sins, but no crimes,” his lawyer, Allison Van Laningham, said in her opening argument. “We aren’t going to judge John Edwards for his sins.”
For those, Mr. Edwards, 58, has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. A CBS News poll last week showed only 3 per cent of Americans have a favourable view of the former North Carolina senator, who repeatedly lied in public about fathering a child during his illicit affair with campaign worker Rielle Hunter.
The jury trial is expected to last at least a month and expose salacious details about the affair – which yielded a sex tape, a love child and a trail of deceit – and the extent to which the desire for power and money drove Mr. Edwards and many around him.
The legacy of Elizabeth Edwards, who died in 2010 after a public struggle with cancer, could suffer amid reports that the prosecution will suggest she had been aware of her husband’s affair and joined in attempts to hide it while he pursued the presidency.
The key to the prosecution’s case lies in proving that Mr. Edwards and his closest associates sought to keep the affair a secret to protect his chances of winning the Democratic nomination in 2008 and, after he left the race, to keep him in the running for a spot on the Democratic ticket or in Barack Obama’s cabinet.
As such, the prosecution argues the $925,000 Mr. Edwards took from Listerine heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and from his friend Fred Baron– money he allegedly used to keep Ms. Hunter housed in luxury digs during and after her pregnancy – constituted a campaign donation that he was required by law to disclose. Furthermore, the sums taken from Ms. Mellon and Mr. Baron also exceeded the $2,300 limit on contributions by a single individual to a presidential candidate.
“He had to keep it quiet. If the affair went public, it would destroy any chance he had to be president and he knew it,” prosecutor David Harbach told the court. “He made a choice to break the law.”
Ms. Van Laningham insisted Mr. Edwards’s attempt to hide his mistress was unrelated to his political campaign: “He did it for the same reason anyone would. He did it to hide it from his wife.”
The defence strategy involves discrediting Edwards aide Andrew Young, who has been given immunity from prosecution and has already sold the movie rights for his tell-all account of Mr. Edwards’ downfall for $1.4-million. The defence alleges Mr. Young diverted much of the money taken from Ms. Mellon and Mr. Baron to build a house for his family.
Ms. Hunter, who posed last year for GQ magazine wearing only a men’s dress shirt and pearls, is expected to spend hours on the stand as a witness for both the prosecution and defence. But while that will garner the most media attention, much of the case will involve arcane discussions of campaign finance law.
The two critical witnesses who could shed light on the nature of their donations to Mr. Edwards will not be testifying. Mr. Baron, who served as the finance chairman on the Edwards campaign, died in 2008. Ms. Mellon, now 101, is too frail to testify.
If Mr. Edwards is convicted on all six counts, he faces up to 30 years in jail and fines of $1.5-million. While such a stiff sentence would be exceptional, Mr. Edwards, an accomplished trial lawyer, does stand to do some jail time and lose his law licence.
For a onetime presidential contender famous for his $400 haircuts, that would really be hitting bottom.Report Typo/Error