June 3, 2011— -- Just hours after being indicted by a federal grand jury, former presidential contender John Edwards emerged to insist, "I did not break the law."
Edwards, 58, was indicted by a grand jury in Raleigh, N.C., for allegedly using more than $900,000 in campaign funds to hide his mistress during the 2008 Democratic presidential race.
"There's no question that I've done wrong and I take full responsibility for having done wrong," Edwards said a brief news conference today. "And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I've caused to others. But I did not break the law and I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law." He declined to answer questions.
The charges, following a two-year investigation, include conspiracy, illegal campaign contributions and making false statements.
Edwards faces a maximum penalty of five years in jail and or a fine of up to $250,000 for each charge, if convicted.
The one time U.S. senator made his statement outside the federal courthouse after pleading not guilty to the charges. He was not required to post bond, but was ordered to surrender his passport and was forbidden to leave the continental U.S.
"This is an unprecedented prosecution, much less an unprecedented civil case," Gregory Craig, Edwards' lead counsel said today before the arraignment. "No one would have known or should have known or could have been expected to know that these payments would be treated or should be considered as campaign contributions and there is no way that Senator Edwards knew that fact either. He will enter a plea of not guilty. He has broken no law, and we will defend this case vigorously."
The prosecutors claim Edwards engaged in a conspiracy to protect his "public image as a devoted family man." It alleges that Edwards was a direct participant, if not the architect, of a plot to solicit huge sums of money from two key political donors to cover up an affair that could have literally blown up his 2008 presidential bid.
"This is a very aggressive prosecution with really no more serious charges than could have been alleged. It's the campaign finance equivalent of seeking the death penalty," ABC News Legal Analyst Dan Abrams said today.
The case is built on the notion that political donors would not be doing this out of the goodness of their heart, that this was an outrageous attempt to circumvent campaign finance law to keep Edwards viable as a presidential candidate.
The indictment lays out a laundry list of big expenditures for Reille Hunter.
"The Edwards probe is at its core a dispute over whether funds are contributions, independent expenditures or a gift. This kind of dispute almost never generates a criminal referral much less an indictment," former federal prosecutor and four-term Alabama congressman Artur Davis told ABC News.
"Mr. 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 candidacy," said Assistant Attorney General Breuer in a statement. "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."
The case against North Carolina Democrat, which called on more than 100 witnesses, will seek to prove that hundreds of thousands of dollars were allegedly used illegally to seclude and support his mistress Rielle Hunter, so Edwards could continue his campaign for the presidency in 2008.
"Public servants are held to the same laws as everyone else in this country. The position sought does not exempt anyone, even those running for president of the United States," said Chris Briese, special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina.
The federal investigation of Edwards began a few months after the National Enquirer had cornered him at a Beverly Hills hotel in October 2007. The supermarket tabloid began to run a series of stories alleging that an adulterous affair occurred between Edwards and Hunter, his former campaign worker.
A few weeks later, in an exclusive interview with ABC's "Nightline," Edwards finally admitted to the affair -- but denied paternity of Hunter's child. In the interview, Edwards also said that he was in the dark about the expensive scheme to keep Hunter out of the public eye.
"I had nothing to do with any money being paid, and no knowledge of any money being paid, and if something was being paid, it wasn't being paid on my behalf," Edwards said.
Edwards' lawyers have argued the hundreds of thousands of dollars were gifts from friends of the former senator, who intended to keep the affair secret from his wife Elizabeth, who died of cancer in December."Public officials hold positions of trust and get no free pass to ignore the law," said Victor S. O. Song, Chief, Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Criminal Investigation (CI). "Today's indictment demonstrates IRS' commitment to work with our law enforcement partners to ensure our public officers remain trustworthy and adhere to the highest levels of integrity."