John Edwards’ legal team offers mixed messages on potential plea deal

Holly Bailey

John Edwards' legal team is offering mixed messages about whether the former Democratic presidential hopeful will strike a plea deal to avoid a trial over charges he broke the law trying to hide an affair with a former campaign aide.

As The Ticket reported yesterday, federal prosecutors are reportedly planning to indict Edwards within weeks for allegedly using political donations to hide an affair with Rielle Hunter, a former campaign videographer who later gave birth to his child.

On Tuesday, Greg Craig, a former Obama White House counsel who was retained by Edwards earlier this year, issued a statement defending his client and trashing the Justice Department's case, calling it "novel and untested."

"John Edwards has done wrong in his life—and he knows it better than anyone—but he did not break the law," Craig said. "The Justice Department has wasted millions of dollars and thousands of hours on a matter more appropriately a topic for the Federal Election Commission to consider, not a criminal court."

Craig's defiant statement would seem to hint that Edwards is not looking to strike a deal with prosecutors to avoid trial. Yet the Wall Street Journal's Evan Perez reports that attorneys on Edwards' legal team are negotiating with prosecutors to avoid felony charges for their client.

In his statement Tuesday, Craig insisted that "not one penny" of Edwards' 2008 campaign cash was misused to conceal the candidate's affair and Hunter's subsequent pregnancy. But at issue is whether cash given to political nonprofits linked to Edwards during his 2008 presidential run should count as contributions to his federal campaign.

Two longtime Edwards patrons--reclusive banking heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron, who died in 2008--reportedly gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to political entities linked to the former North Carolina senator.  According to Andrew Young, a onetime top Edwards aide who initially pretended to be father of Hunter's baby, that cash was used to to cover up both the affair and Hunter's pregnancy.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Edwards broke campaign law by taking campaign contributions in excess of federal limits and then misusing those funds. Edwards' legal team says that such claims won't stick in court--but it's worth noting that former Nevada Sen. John Ensign came under similar scrutiny when his parents paid off his former mistress and her husband after they threatened to go public with Ensign's extramarital affair.

Ensign resigned his seat earlier this month, but the Senate Ethics Committee, in a subsequent report, suggested Ensign broke the law by misspending money that should have counted as a campaign donation. The committee also recommended that Justice Department renew a criminal investigation into Ensign and the effort to conceal his affair.

According to Politico's Ben Smith, Edwards' legal team is genuinely split over whether their client should strike a plea. If Edwards pleads guilty to a felony, he's likely to lose his law license--which would harm his ability to make money. Yet Edwards reportedly views a trial as a way to clear his name--even though an adverse verdict could land him in jail.

(Photo of Edwards: Eric Thayer/Getty Images)