A Montecito love shack — where former U.S. Senator John Edwards hid his pregnant mistress — featured prominently in this week’s federal indictment against the one-time presidential candidate and golden boy of the Democratic Party, who was charged with six counts of violating campaign finance law, lying about it to government investigators, and conspiring to do the aforementioned. Edwards, accompanied by his 29-year old daughter, pled not guilty in federal court to charges arising from the $1 million he received in hush money from two deep-pocketed supporters to keep his candidacy alive in 2008.
The wheels flew off Edwards’s 2008 presidential campaign when the National Enquirer revealed he’d fathered a child with Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer, with whom he’d been having an affair. To keep Hunter and her child, Frances Quinn Hunter — who was born in Cottage Hospital in February 2008 — away from the prying eyes of tabloid journalists and assorted paparazzi, Edwards had campaign confidante Arthur Young shuttle them from Florida to Colorado to Montecito. All this was paid for with funds provided by Rachel Bunny Mellon, a 100-year-old banking heiress and longtime supporter of Edwards, and Fred Barron, Edwards’s now deceased campaign manager. At the time, Young — who has since written a book on the affair — sought to take heat off Edwards by claiming he was the father.
While in Santa Barbara, Hunter and her daughter stayed at a mansion located behind the gated community of Ennisbrook, between Montecito and Summerland. The Hunters rented the home of Bob Short — a registered Republican with no known connection to the Edwards machine — for $58,000. The developer of Ennisbrook is Jack Theimer, a Santa Barbara businessman with strong ties to the Democratic Party.
While Edwards has readily admitted what he’s done was wrong, he emphatically denied it was illegal. And the legal theory upon which the government’s case rests is nothing if not novel. The indictment claims the private donations should have been reported as a campaign donation because the clear objective of keeping Edwards’s affair and love child hidden was to keep his campaign alive. At the time, Edwards was famously married to Elizabeth Edwards, then struggling heroically with cancer. Ultimately, cancer would get the upper hand and Edwards died — but only after divorcing her philandering husband and writing a book about her challenges. Were the affair to become public, the considerable good will Edwards had engendered as a stand-by-your-heroically-imperiled-spouse-kind-of-guy would incinerate. Such an interpretation of federal campaign finance law has not been the basis of a criminal prosecution ever before.
The slush fund was started originally after Edwards was criticized for getting $400 haircuts. That extravagance stood in contrast with his populist message — how the gap between the rich and poor had widened to such an extent that there were now “Two Americas” — and conservative pundits as well as Edwards’s political opponents had a field day with it. Heiress Mellon stepped into the breach at that point to allow Edwards to maintain his high-end grooming habits but at her expense. That expense account would later expand to allow Edwards to maintain his extra-curricular love life, as well.
The whole Edwards affair highlights the convoluted, disjointed, and coincidental way in which Santa Barbara personalities often intersect with national events. In this case, Hunter — tough-minded and glamorous with a new age veneer — had lived in Santa Barbara before, renting space in the home of freelance investigative reporter Annie Bardach and her actor husband Robert Lesser. At the time the scandal broke, Lesser spoke favorably of Hunter’s grit and intelligence and described her as a good tenant. But at the same time, Bardach and Lesser were also on very good terms with Mickey Kaus, a nationally prominent journalist, as well as Arianna Huffington, founder of the HuffingtonPost website. Kaus and Huffington would pursue the Edwards story when mainstream news outlets did not and only the Enquirer did.
Bardach, it just so happens, was the one to break the story about how Arnold Schwarzenegger had been hired to write a regular column for body builder magazines published by the same company that produces the National Enquirer just as he was preparing to run for governor, as part of the recall effort to unseat then governor Gray Davis. Up to that point, the Enquirer had written in some detail about Schwarzenegger’s sexual activities. By signing Schwarzenegger as a contributor to the muscle mags, Bardach reported Schwarzenegger secured an insurance policy against the sort of scandal-mongering investigations for which the Enquirer is famous. At the time, Schwarzenegger was facing a barrage of negative news stories detailing the unwanted and unsolicited sexual advances that he’d made.
During Schwarzenegger’s term in office, he enjoyed exceptionally soft treatment at the hands of the Enquirer. In that time, he also happened to purchase a lot in Carpinteria’s Rancho Monte Allegre high-end subdivision, located not far from where Bardach and Lesser live. Even before Schwarzenegger was elected governor, Bardach was an outspoken critic of the Rancho Monte Allegre development proposal, and played a prominent role in the unsuccessful effort to stop it. Schwarzenegger never got around to building his home in Carpinteria, and with his recent breakup from wife Maria Shriver — also over revelations that he’d fathered a child with someone else while married — it’s doubtful he ever will.