From Clinton to Edwards, political sex scandals have rich hush money history, but few convictions

John Edwards' effort to conceal an affair during his 2008 campaign led to charges but not convictions.

Published: March 16, 2023 7:34pm

Updated: March 19, 2023 11:12pm

A quarter century ago, when America was in the throes of a presidential impeachment, an Arkansas woman named Dolly Kyle Browning recounted a 1994 meeting with then-President Bill Clinton during a high school reunion and subsequent contacts from his lieutenants designed to keep her quiet about a years-long sexual affair.

"In the fall of 1994, through the intermediaries of Dorcy Kyle Corbin and Bruce Lindsey, Billy and I reached a 'deal,'" Browning swore in a March 1998 affidavit that would become evidence in both a civil lawsuit and an impeachment proceeding. "The 'deal' was that I agreed not to tell the true story about our relationship if he would not tell any lies about me.

"I agreed not to use, in public, the 'A words' which were defined as 'adultery' and 'affair.' I was allowed to say that we had a thirty-three year relationship that, from time to time, included sex. If I needed to contact Billy, I would call Dorcy and she would call Bruce Lindsey. I used this method of communication several times over the years."

As Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg pursues a possible criminal indictment against former President Donald Trump stemming from alleged hush money payments to a porn star — a case legal experts say is legally and ethically questionable — the pursuit invites comparison with a long history of infamous efforts to silence women about past sexual encounters with politically powerful men.

Some involved money changing hands, others sought to silence victims through job offers or intimidation, while still others were kept quiet through new or existing nondisclosure agreements. But few such efforts ever resulted in criminal convictions.

In the most famous case, Sen. John Edwards was criminally charged in 2011 with disguising payments from campaign donors to keep quiet during his 2008 presidential campaign the fact that he had a long-running affair with a mistress with whom he fathered a child in 2007 as his wife Elizabeth battled fatal breast cancer.

"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," the Justice Department alleged in a statement that announced the indictment.

Edwards later admitted to the affair and fathering a child, but his trial ended in an acquittal on one charge and a mistrial on five others. Prosecutors chose not to pursue a second trial.

"We knew that this case — like all campaign finance cases — would be challenging," then-Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in explaining why a second trial made no sense. "But it is our duty to bring hard cases when we believe that the facts and the law support charging a candidate for high office with a crime." 

The annals of politics are littered with examples of efforts to buy or impose silence in sex scandals but few successful convictions.

Disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, for example, was alleged to have tried to buy actress Rose McGowan's silence with a $1 million payment.

Weinstein — for decades one of the Democrats' largest donors — would eventually be convicted in multiple courts on allegations of sexual assault. The efforts to conceal, however, never resulted in convictions.

Bill Clinton's long history of alleged sexual indiscretions included many reported attempts to silence accusers, as well as an $850,000 payment to one, Paula Jones, whose lawsuit became the focal point of his 1998 impeachment and 1999 Senate trial acquittal.

During the Paula Jones litigation, Clinton lawyer M. Samuel Jones III was quoted by lawyer John B. Thompson as saying that during Clinton's presidential candidacy in 1992 his role was to track down and buy off women who claimed they'd had affairs with the candidate to "make them go away." 

Samuel Jones called Thompson's account "totally untrue," denying he had any role in Clinton's campaigns. He was a partner in the law firm of Wright, Lindsey & Jennings, the former law firm of Deputy White House Counsel Bruce Lindsey. But the allegation was aired for all the world to see and hear.

Sometimes, traditional nondisclosure agreements in the workplace kept allegations of sexual wrongdoing from erupting into public view to the detriment of political campaigns.

Tens years after her first presidential run in 2008 and two years after her second failed run, Hillary Clinton was forced to confront publicly allegations that a senior adviser to her 2008 campaign was accused of repeatedly sexually harassing a young subordinate but nonetheless was kept on the campaign at Mrs. Clinton's request. The story made headlines after the fact in the New York Times.

The newspaper described why the alleged victim never came forward publicly. "She, like most campaign staff members, signed a nondisclosure agreement that barred employees from publicly discussing internal dynamics on the campaign," the Times reported.

Bragg, the Manhattan DA, is reportedly targeting Trump in a grand jury probe into an alleged hush money scheme involving Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress who received $130,000 near the end of the 2016 presidential campaign so she wouldn't disclose her alleged 2006 affair with Trump.

Former Trump attorney Michael Cohen paid Daniels the $130,000, and Trump reimbursed him.

Bragg could argue that Trump falsified business records after federal prosecutors in a case against Cohen said that Trump's company "falsely accounted" for Trump's reimbursement of Cohen as legal expenses, The New York Times reported. Falsifying business records is a misdemeanor in New York, but it could become a felony if Trump's "intent to defraud" included an intent to conceal or commit a second crime.

The second crime could be an improper campaign contribution from Cohen to Trump's campaign since it was to benefit his candidacy, according to the Times.

However, renowned civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who represented Trump in his first impeachment trial, has argued the potential indictment would be "questionable."

"After spending months searching the criminal code for a law that Mr. Trump might be accused of violating, Mr. Bragg has apparently landed on a highly questionable campaign contribution provision that has never before been used in a comparable situation," Dershowitz wrote for his Substack newsletter on Wednesday.

"Does anyone actually believe that if someone else were accused of paying hush money to avoid a sex scandal in the manner that Mr. Trump is suspected of doing, he would be prosecuted?" he asked.

"When I was coming of age in the 1950s Southern prosecutors would target civil rights workers and search for any possible violation of the law, no matter how technical," Dershowitz said. "If they discovered or invented a violation, they would indict, prosecute, convict and sentence the target."

In a "partisan selective prosecution," the target "may well be technically guilty of some violation," said Dershowitz. "The question is would he have been prosecuted for that violation if he were not the political target." 

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