Edwards faces charges of using donations to hide love-child

The grand jury probed claims that two top donors knowingly allowed their campaign contributions to be used to hide former senator's mistress and child
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John Edwards, the already disgraced former senator and presidential candidate, was facing fresh humiliation last night as word leaked that federal prosecutors were preparing formally to charge him with illegally using campaign funds to cover up the existence of a mistress and a love-child.

The development is a calamity for the Edwards legal team, which had battled to persuade government lawyers to close a grand jury investigation into the affair and its bearing on the 2008 presidential race. It appears that Mr Edwards will now have to accept some kind of plea bargain or else stand trial.

With his good looks and persuasive oratory about the income divide in America, Mr Edwards first made the top division when John Kerry picked him as his running mate. The Democratic ticket in 2004 lost but Mr Edwards re-emerged to seek the White House for himself in 2008. But he bowed out when he was forced to confirm media reports of an affair with a videographer on his campaign, Rielle Hunter.

Last year Mr Edwards took his admissions a step further, admitting that he was the father of a baby girl, Francis Quinn Hunter, who is now seven years old. His betrayed wife, Elizabeth Edwards, died after a long battle with cancer last December.

The grand jury probed claims that two top donors knowingly allowed their dollars to be used to hide the mistress and child. The subterfuge even involved a top aide to the candidate agreeing to pretend to be the father if the press ever asked.

The aide, Andrew Young, has since written a tell-all book about the Edward-Hunter debacle that is hardly flattering of the couple (or of Mrs Edwards). In his book, Mr Young told how he was persuaded to take part in an elaborate cover-up after The National Enquirer first broke the story of the affair. It involved Mr Young publicly claiming to be the father of Ms Hunter's child, even though Mr Young had never slept with Ms Hunter, and at the time was happily married. But he allowed Ms Hunter to take up residence at his family home.

He said that several times the senator had publicly dismissed the Enquirer stories of the affair and the illegitimate child several times as "mere tabloid trash", but told him that if a reporter asked, he was to arrange for a doctor to fake DNA results. Mr Edwards then publicly denied having cheated on his wife.

Mr Young has said that Mr Edwards agreed in 2007 to solicit money directly from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, the 100-year-old widow of banking heir Paul Mellon. The aide alleges that he received hundreds of thousands of dollars in checks from Mrs Mellon, some of them hidden in boxes of chocolate. Mrs Mellon's attorney has said she did not know where the money was going but intended it as a personal gift.

The other donor, Fred Baron, died in 2008 but not before he admitted he knew where his money was going, though he said Mr Edwards did not. He said he helped Mr Young and Ms Hunter move across the country.

Mr Young has also testified to the grand jury. First reports that charges are imminent and could be unveiled within days came from ABC News. The network said it "now knows that federal prosecutors intend to indict" Mr Edwards and are "deciding how to proceed now that the Justice Department has given the green light for him to face criminal charges".

A sex-and-subterfuge trial of a former presidential candidate would inevitably turn into a media carnival. Its gruesomeness would be deepened because of the involvement of the young child. It may be unthinkable for Mr Edwards, but a plea deal would be likely to include at least significant fines for the defendant and even possible prison time, experts predict.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Ms Hunter was also pitching a book to publishers, which could cause further embarrassment for a man once seen as a potential president.

Ms Hunter had been hired in 2006 to shoot video of Mr Edwards as he prepared for his second White House bid. Records show her video production firm earned about $100,000.

The two-year investigation into Mr Edwards has not only focused on his affair with Ms Hunter, but also a network of organisations connected to the former senator, including non-profit groups.

Cheer for Democrats

Democrats were cheering yesterday after winning a special congressional election in upstate New York seen as a first referendum on a Republican plan to phase out the government Medicare programme for the elderly.

In a district outside Buffalo that has voted Republican since the 1960s, voters defected in droves to the Democrat candidate, Kathy Hochul. The election was the first test of popular reaction to an austerity budget blueprint passed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives that includes provisions to end Medicare and replace it with government vouchers to buy private insurance. The victory of Ms Hochul after an expensive campaign suggests that the plan, embraced by most Republican leaders, could become a disastrous drag on the party next year. "The Republican plan to end Medicare cost Republicans $3.4m and a seat in Congress," said Congressman Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "And this is only the first seat."