Search form

How to Handle Scandal: John Edwards

See other How to Handle Scandal features.

What we know: Former United States Senator from North Carolina John Edwards, who was the Democratic Party nominee for vice president in 2004 and a presidential contender in 2008, was indicted for allegedly using campaign funds to cover up an affair that resulted in a child. Edwards was accused of breaking federal campaign finance laws. The indictment claims money used by Edwards to cover up his affair with the child’s mother, Rielle Hunter, were actually campaign contributions. Federal campaign laws require that all campaign contributions be disclosed and in 2008, those contributions were capped at $2,300 per person.

Sometimes events in the news – no matter how distasteful  – find their way into the classroom. This may happen due to student curiosity or lack of understanding, or because a scandalous event has far-reaching impact. When this happens, it's important to decide what you can and cannot say as an educator.

Individual schools and districts may have policies guiding teacher responses to sensitive issues, and we urge you to consult with an administrator before addressing these topics. At the very least, however, we'd like to help you fully understand the story. How to Handle Scandal features will appear when the news dictates and will be updated as details change.

The law also states that a candidate may not receive any payments or benefits (Toyota can't give you a car, for example) that he or she would not have received had he not run for office. In the indictment against Edwards, the U.S. Justice Department alleged that between 2007 and 2008, Edwards accepted more than $900,000 to help conceal the facts that he thought would harm his candidacy for president.

Edwards initially denied the affair and the fact that he was the father of Hunter's child. Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, one day after her husband and John Kerry were defeated in the 2004 presidential election. The cancer went into remission, but it returned in 2007 – after Edwards had begun his affair with Hunter but before she gave birth to Edwards' child.

The Edwards affair story was actually first broken by The National Enquirer, and he continued to deny it. Eventually, in August of 2008, Edwards admitted the affair on the television show 20/20, although he continued to deny being the father of the child. He continued with that lie until finally admitting paternity in January of 2010. Edwards was indicted in June of 2010, and Elizabeth Edwards died in December of 2010.

Edwards' official mug shot. He was accused of having an affair and using campaign dollars to cover it up.
U.S. Marshals Service/Handout.

The fallout: Edwards was charged with the following counts:

One count of conspiracy to violate the federal campaign finance laws and to make false statements to the Federal Election Commission. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Four counts of accepting and receiving illegal campaign contributions from two donors in 2007 and 2008. Each charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

One count of concealing those illegal donations from the FEC. The charge carries a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In June 2012, federal prosecutors dropped the remaining charges against Edwards, shortly after his corruption trial ended in an acquittal and mistrial.


Potential issues to discuss in class:

  • Should a presidential candidate's personal life be a factor in determining whether someone votes for him/her?
  • Do we need stronger campaign finance laws?
  • What do you make of Edwards’ initial attempts to lie to the public?
  • Would you vote for John Edwards if he were to run for office again?


Article by Daniel B. Kline, EducationWorld Contributing Editor
Education World®             
Copyright © 2011 Education World