John Edwards donor to plead guilty to illegal donations

-By Josh Gerstein on HamptonRoads.Com

August 5, 2011- A prominent Los Angeles trial lawyer has agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanors for giving employees and a relative a total of $20,000 to donate to former Sen. John Edwards's presidential campaign in 2003, court documents show.

The L.A. attorney, Pierce O'Donnell, has agreed to serve six months in jail and to pay a fine of $20,000, according to a plea agreement filed Thursday afternoon in federal court.

O'Donnell's case drew national attention in 2009 when Judge James Otero issued a surprising ruling that reimbursing a campaign contribution to a federal candidate did not violate federal law. Last year, a federal appeals court overruled Otero and reinstated the charges. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to take up the case, although a Virginia judge recently came to a similar conclusion as Otero.

When the case was filed back in 2008, O'Donnell was indicted on three felony charges. The judge struck two of those charges in his ruling and later dismissed one at the request of prosecutors. With only misdemeanors on his record, O'Donnell could regain his law license, which was suspended after the charges were filed. His trial was set to open August 30.

Prosecutors may have agreed to the downsized case to avoid the possibility of a trial where O'Donnell could have alleged some sort of conspiracy to punish him for his political views or his legal work challenging the rich and powerful. Such arguments helped Michigan trial lawyer Geoffrey Fieger win an acquittal in 2008 on similar charges that he and a law partner used straw donors or conduits to give more than $100,000 to Edwards's 2004 campaign.

O'Donnell's ultimate sentence will be up to Otero, but if he declines to go along with the parties' recommendation the plea deal will essentially be canceled and a trial could take place.

The case does not appear to be related to the election-law indictment pending against Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat accused of participating in an illegal scheme to transfer more than $900,000 in cash and gifts to cover up an affair and out-of-wedlock child he fathered during his unsuccessful 2008 bid for the presidency.

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