By NEIL A. LEWIS
September 20, 2009
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The story of the spectacular rise and fall of John Edwards, with its sordid can’t-look-away dimensions, is moving slowly but deliberately to its conclusion here in North Carolina.
Mr. Edwards, the one-term senator who came close to being elected vice president in 2004 and ran a credible campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, remains largely secluded at his 100-acre estate here.
But a federal grand jury in nearby Raleigh is investigating whether any crimes were committed in connection with campaign laws in an effort to conceal his extramarital affair with a woman named Rielle Hunter. At the same time, Mr. Edwards is moving toward an abrupt reversal in his public posture; associates said in interviews that he is considering declaring that he is the father of Ms. Hunter’s 19-month-old daughter, something that he once flatly asserted in a television interview was not possible.
Friends and other associates of Mr. Edwards and his wife of 32 years, Elizabeth, say she has resisted the idea of her husband’s claiming paternity. Mrs. Edwards, who is battling cancer, “has yet to be brought around,” said one family friend, who like others spoke about the situation on the condition of anonymity, pointing to the complicated and delicate nature of the issue.
The situation may become more fraught, as people who know Ms. Hunter said she was planning to move with her daughter, Frances, from New Jersey to North Carolina in coming months.
For her grand jury appearance on Aug. 6, Ms. Hunter took her daughter to the federal courthouse in downtown Raleigh. As she walked in, she seemed to turn the girl’s face toward the local television cameras.
Ms. Hunter testified to the grand jury in detail about her relationship with Mr. Edwards, lawyers involved in the case said, as well as the benefits she was provided by his supporters after she became pregnant. Michael Crichtley, her lawyer, declined to comment.
According to people familiar with the grand jury investigation, prosecutors are considering a complicated and novel legal issue: whether payments to a candidate’s mistress to ensure her silence (and thus maintain the candidate’s viability) should be considered campaign donations and thus whether they should be reported. When Mr. Edwards was running for president, and even later when he still held out hope of a senior cabinet position in the Obama administration, two of his wealthy patrons, through a once-trusted Edwards aide, quietly provided Ms. Hunter with large financial benefits, including a new BMW and lodging, that were used to keep her out of public view.
Mr. Edwards dismissed an initial report in The National Enquirer in 2007 that he was having an affair, and the matter was largely ignored by the mainstream news media. But in July 2008, The Enquirer published an article with photographs of a clandestine meeting Mr. Edwards had with Ms. Hunter and her daughter in a Los Angeles hotel. Days later, Mr. Edwards acknowledged the affair to “Nightline” on ABC, offering contrition but insisting that the child could not be his because of the timing and brevity of their intimacy.
Wade M. Smith, a prominent Raleigh lawyer who represents Mr. Edwards, declined to comment on the paternity issue directly, but said in a statement that “there may be a statement on that subject at some point, but there is no timetable and we will see how we feel about it as events unfold.”
The notion that Mr. Edwards is the father has been reinforced by the account of Andrew Young, once a close aide to Mr. Edwards, who had signed an affidavit asserting that he was the father of Ms. Hunter’s child.
Mr. Young, who has since renounced that statement, has told publishers in a book proposal that Mr. Edwards knew all along that he was the child’s father. He said Mr. Edwards pleaded with him to accept responsibility falsely, saying that would reduce the story to one of a political aide’s infidelity.
In the proposal, which The New York Times examined, Mr. Young asserts that he assisted the affair by setting up private meetings between Mr. Edwards and Ms. Hunter. He wrote that Mr. Edwards once calmed an anxious Ms. Hunter by promising her that after his wife died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band.
Once the favorite son of much of North Carolina with many supporters beyond, John Edwards is now largely disdained. To many, it was not only his liaison with Ms. Hunter, but also what seemed his elaborate effort to cover up his behavior to preserve his political ambitions.
Shortly after he withdrew from the race in January 2008, Mr. Edwards and his wife were given a huge ovation when they attended a basketball game at the University of North Carolina. But a few months ago, when the couple showed up for dinner at a Chapel Hill restaurant, diners averted their eyes and stared at their plates, according to a person who was there.
At the recent Boston funeral of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Mrs. Edwards walked several steps ahead of her husband, greeting people exuberantly. Far fewer people approached Mr. Edwards, who appeared ill at ease.
Investigators are examining the benefits Ms. Hunter received from the two Edwards supporters, Fred Baron, a wealthy trial lawyer from Dallas who has since died, and Rachel Mellon, known as Bunny, a 99-year-old heiress to the Mellon fortune. Before his death, Mr. Baron said in a statement that he paid Ms. Hunter and helped move her and Mr. Young to California and other places on his own initiative, without informing Mr. Edwards. Mr. Edwards has asserted that he knew nothing of the benefits provided to Ms. Hunter by Mr. Baron or Mrs. Mellon.
In his book proposal, however, Mr. Young depicts Mr. Baron as going to great lengths to help a knowing and eager Mr. Edwards conceal from the public both his affair with Ms. Hunter and his paternity of her daughter. At one point, Mr. Young wrote, Mr. Edwards asked Mr. Baron if he could find a doctor who would falsify a DNA report.
Mr. Smith, Mr. Edwards’s lawyer, declined to comment on any of Mr. Young’s allegations. Mr. Edwards has not appeared before the grand jury.
Alex Forger, a New York lawyer who represents Mrs. Mellon, said in an interview that she had admired Mr. Edwards for his environmental views and that when told by Mr. Young that Mr. Edwards needed financial assistance for some nonpolitical purpose, she agreed to help.
“The request came from Andrew Young that the senator needed some funds for personal use,” Mr. Forger said. He said that at the time of the payments, Mrs. Mellon had not met Ms. Hunter, did not know of her and was unaware that she was the recipient of the money.
Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic consultant who has monitored the Edwards investigation, said it would be difficult for prosecutors to make a case because “the law probably doesn’t anticipate payments to a mistress during a campaign.”
While violations of campaign finance regulations are not necessarily crimes and may be punished by fines from the Federal Election Commission, they can also break criminal laws if there is evidence of willful deception.
The prosecutors are also examining some $114,000 paid by the Edwards campaign to Ms. Hunter for a series of short campaign videos she produced. About $14,000 of that money was paid to her well after the videos were produced, some through transfers from accounts and listed as for furniture purchases.
Ms. Hunter gave her daughter the middle name Quinn, and people who have spoken with her said its resemblance to the Latin prefix for five was to proclaim that the baby was Mr. Edwards’s fifth child. (He had four with Mrs. Edwards, the oldest of whom was killed in a car accident).
Any acknowledgment of paternity would have ramifications for Mr. Edwards, who could suffer a further blow to his credibility but could also be praised for belatedly accepting responsibility. It could also shift Ms. Hunter’s image from that of a predatory celebrity stalker (Mrs. Edwards told Oprah Winfrey that Ms. Hunter met her husband after waiting for him to come out of a New York hotel and telling him, “You’re so hot.”) to that of a mother concerned about her child’s rights.
Mrs. Edwards last month opened a furniture store called Red Window in downtown Chapel Hill, and on a recent weekday several women examined the chairs, tables and knickknacks crowded into a small space. She was not there.
People familiar with Ms. Hunter said she was planning to move soon to the Wilmington area, near where the Edwardses have a second home on an island with restricted access.