WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Former presidential hopeful John Edwards pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges that he solicited and secretly spent more than $925,000 to hide his mistress and baby from the public at the height of his 2008 White House campaign.
In a 30-second statement to the press, he said he never thought he was breaking a law.
"There is no question that I have done wrong," he said. "And I take full responsibility for having done wrong. And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others. But I did not break the law."
Edwards did not have to post bond, but he had to surrender his passport and is not allowed to leave the continental United States. He also can't have contact with one of the wealthy benefactors who gave him money that prosecutors say was used to hide the affair.
The indictment contained six felony counts, including conspiracy, four counts of receiving illegal campaign contributions and one count of false statements for keeping the spending off the campaign's public finance reports.
It said the payments made with money from two supporters were a scheme to protect Edwards' presidential ambitions.
"A centerpiece of Edwards' candidacy was his public image as a devoted family man," the indictment said. "Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and the pregnancy would destroy his candidacy."
Prosecutors said the spending was illegal because the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee should have reported it on public campaign finance filings and because it exceeded the $2,300 limit per person for campaign contributions.
Edwards' lawyer, Gregory Craig, said there's no way that anyone, including Edwards, would have known that the payments should be treated as campaign contributions. "This is an unprecedented prosecution," he said at the courthouse. "He has broken no law and we will defend this case vigorously."
The case opens a new front in how the federal government oversees the flow of money around political campaigns.
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the case was "remarkably weak." While Sloan called Edwards' conduct despicable, she said the government case rests on finding the payments by Edwards' two wealthy old friends to be campaign contributions "but no court has ever interpreted the definition of campaign contribution this broadly."
Edwards' defense team issued statements from experts who argued the payments were not campaign contributions. A former Federal Elections Commission chairman, Scott Thomas, said if the agency had investigated, it would have found the payments did not violate the law, even as a civil matter.