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High Profile Law Firm Withdraws From John Edwards' Defense Team

John Edwards faced the court and the media after his indictment in June.
Chuck Burton
John Edwards faced the court and the media after his indictment in June.

Former U.S. senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, indicted for alleged campaign violations, is losing part of his trial team. The high profile Wall Street law firm that has led his defense is withdrawing.

Until now, Edwards has been represented by former White House Counsel Gregory Craig and former Associate White House Counsel Cliff Sloan from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. But apparently for both financial and tactical reasons, Edwards is switching lawyers.

Skadden, dubbed "Wall Street's most powerful law firm" by Forbes magazine, is also one of the nation's most expensive law firms, and Edwards, according to some of his friends, simply could not afford the tab.

Staying on to defend him will be two high profile and well known North Carolina lawyers, Wade Smith and James Cooney, and joining the team will be Washington, D.C. white collar criminal defense lawyer Abbe Lowell.

Edwards served one term in the U.S. Senate, was nominated as the Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate in 2004, and ran for president in the Democratic primaries in both 2004 and 2008.

In June, a federal grand jury in North Carolina indicted him on charges that he violated federal campaign finance charges by "secretly obtaining and using" contributions from wealthy patrons and using the money to conceal his extramarital affair with videographer Rielle Hunter, and the fact that he had fathered a child with her.

Edwards does not deny that he used the money to conceal the affair, but he contends that the two wealthy benefactors who gave him the money did not give it for campaign purposes, but to hide the affair from his wife. The Justice Department contends the money — nearly $1 million from just two donors — was instead, in each case, a campaign contribution and subject to federal campaign finance public reporting and limits. Federal law limited individual contributions at the time to $2,300 and Edwards did not disclose his receipt of the money.

Critics on the right and left have contended that the indictment is a stretch, a notion that Edwards lawyers will amplify this fall in motions seeking to have the indictment dismissed. But if that fails, Edwards, once a nationally known trial lawyer himself, will go on trial — not to preserve his good name, which has already been tarnished to black brass, but to preserve his liberty.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.