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June 3, 2011 1:11 PM

Skadden Takes Lead as Edwards Pleads Not Guilty to Campaign Finance Charges

Posted by Brian Baxter

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UPDATE: 6/3/11, 5:55 p.m. John Edwards has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and campaign finance violations, and has publicly denied breaking any law, CNN reports.

Former North Carolina senator and presidential candidate John Edwards was indicted Friday by a federal grand jury in North Carolina on felony charges that he violated campaign finance laws during his 2008 run for the White House. Edwards faces six counts of conspiracy, illegal campaign contributions, and making false statements.

The one-time vice presidential nominee and prominent plaintiffs lawyer was charged after plea negotiations between his defense team and federal prosecutors failed to produce an agreement, according to The Washington Post. (Click here for a copy of the 19-page indictment, courtesy of The WaPo.)

The Justice Department announced that Edwards, 58, was indicted in the Middle District of North Carolina in Winston-Salem as a result of "a scheme to violate federal campaign finance laws." Edwards is scheduled to appear in court this afternoon before U.S. magistrate judge Patrick Auld.

"[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 [presidential] candidacy," said a statement by assistant U.S. attorney general Lanny Breuer. "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. Our campaign finance system is designed to preserve the integrity of democratic elections--for the presidency and all other elected offices--and we will vigorously pursue abuses of the kind alleged today."

Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Gregory Craig, who joined the firm last year after stepping down as White House counsel, has taken the lead representing Edwards, along with media savvy partner Cliff Sloan and associate David Foster, all of whom are based in Washington, D.C.

Craig, who was traveling to North Carolina to attend a court hearing for his client, said in a statement Friday that Edwards will tell the court "he is innocent of all charges and will plead not guilty." Craig has acknowledged that his client "has done wrong in his life," but he reiterated Friday that Edwards "did not break the law and [we] will mount a vigorous defense."

As we noted back in March, Edwards turned to Craig earlier this year as a federal criminal probe into his campaign finances and any connection to the fallout from his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter intensified. Craig has joined a local team from North Carolina already representing Edwards that includes Wade Smith of Raleigh's Tharrington Smith--a firm where Edwards once worked--and James "Jim" Cooney III of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Charlotte.

Cooney successfully defended former Duke lacrosse player Reade Seligmann in a controversial rape case, while Smith advised another ex-player on that team, Collin Finnerty. Both were eventually exonerated and the lead prosecutor in the case, Michael Nifong, was later disbarred.

Womble Carlyle and Cooney have been representing Edwards in a dispute over the custody of a sex tape their client allegedly made with Hunter, according to our previous reports. Cooney told us last year that he came to represent Edwards because he used to square off against the former plaintiffs' lawyer when Edwards was still practicing law.

Payments allegedly made by the Edwards 2008 presidential campaign to Hunter, who detailed her relationship with Edwards in GQ magazine last year, are at the heart of the government's case against him. The sex scandal first came to light three years ago when famed Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron--Edwards's national campaign finance chairman--admitted he paid ex-Edwards aide Andrew Young and Hunter for relocation expenses to move her and a then unborn child from North Carolina to California. (Click here for a list of key figures in the Edwards case, courtesy of The Charlotte Observer.)

The government's indictment does not name Hunter. It states that from "February 2006 through at least in or about August 2008, Edwards had an extramarital affair with Person B, which resulted in a pregnancy and the birth of a child."

Baron, a founder of Dallas's Baron & Budd, died of blood cancer in October 2008. He is not named in the indictment. An anonymous individual is identified by the government in the indictment as a "political supporter of Edwards beginning in or about 2004" who also was "involved in raising campaign funds for Edwards" and "served as his campaign's finance chair during the 2008 presidential campaign cycle."

Before he died, Baron told sibling publication Texas Lawyer that he made the payments without telling Edwards or knowing that the former presidential candidate had an affair with Hunter. (The New York Times later reported that Baron might have played a larger role in covering up Edwards's affair.)

Edwards's former wife, Elizabeth, never finalized the terms of her divorce from her husband before she died of cancer late last year. She did leave her husband out of her will.

The case against Edwards is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorneys Robert Higdon, Jr., and Brian Meyers in Charlotte, as well as deputy chief Justin Shur and trial attorneys David Harbach II and Jeffrey Tsai of the Justice Department's public integrity section. (That section brought the corruption case against Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who died in a plane crash last year after a botched criminal conviction.)

Edwards himself is no stranger to the courtroom. He began his legal career as an associate at Nashville firm Dearborn & Ewing. Edwards then settled in Raleigh and joined Tharrington Smith, where he became one of North Carolina's top trial lawyers. In the early nineties, Edwards started Edwards & Kirby (now called Kirby & Holt), winning a $25 million personal injury verdict against Sta-Rite Industries in 1997, which was one of the largest judgment's in the state's history.

A book released by Edwards in 2003 called Four Trials recounts the biggest cases of his legal career. Will this latest turn of events bring another chapter?

 

RELATED FROM THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL

DOJ's Public Integrity Section Takes on John Edwards


Photo: Roberto Westbrook

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