The Associated Press got an inside look at the case prosecutors will make against John Edwards for conspiracy, taking illegal contributions, and making false statements to the FEC, about which some observers have expressed skepticism.  Key e-mails obtained by the Department of Justice show that Edwards knew about the secret payments from the late Fred Baron and Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, and notes taken by his speechwriter confirm that Edwards knew what the money was for:

People familiar with the case told The Associated Press that Edwards and his former speechwriter Wendy Button exchanged e-mails working on a draft statement for him to acknowledge what he had denied publicly — paternity of his out-of-wedlock child, along with knowledge of payments to keep his pregnant mistress in hiding.

The messages, draft statements and notes of their related phone conversations were obtained by prosecutors in their case against Edwards, indicted on charges he failed to report nearly $1 million allegedly spent to keep his mistress out of the public eye as he pursued the White House. The former senator was still denying he was the baby’s father and publicly maintained he knew nothing about any money that may have been spent when the e-mails were sent in summer 2009.

Prosecutors must prove the 2004 vice presidential nominee had knowledge of the payments to convict him in the campaign finance case. Edwards proclaimed his innocence of any crime after being indicted Friday.

Those notes could help the defense in one point.  Edwards told Button that he knew about the secret money flowing to keep Rielle Hunter from surfacing during his campaign, but Edwards told Button that he hadn’t asked for any assistance.  The prosecution plans to counter that with testimony from Andrew Young that the two of them strategized on how to raise money quietly to handle Hunter, but at least the defense can argue that Edwards could have just confessed to everything with Button and clearly did not.

That’s a rather weak argument, though.  Edwards’ public defense has been that the money got to Hunter without his knowledge.  If his own records show that’s not the case, then that should confirm at least the four counts of taking illegal contributions, and certainly the charge of filing false statements with the FEC.  All are felonies that carry significant fines and prison time.  Given that Edwards apparently saw all of this evidence when the DoJ offered him a deal for a guilty plea to misdemeanors that could have saved his law license, it makes his decision to reject the plea bargain even more incomprehensible.

Edwards apparently believes that he can convince a jury that arranging (or at the very least allowing) secret payments to his mistress from wealthy benefactors to keep her out of public view had nothing to do with his political ambitions.   Good luck with that.  Even though some of this took place after Edwards clearly dropped out of contention for the nomination, he still raised funds and kept his campaign going.  Furthermore, until Edwards’ scandal erupted, he was widely considered a contender for a Cabinet nomination in either a Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton administration, with the post of Attorney General most discussed — leading the very agency that will now prosecute him.  Convincing either a judge or a jury that Edwards’ political ambitions had nothing to do with wealthy donors funding a cover-up of an extramarital affair will take a much better lawyer than Edwards, or likely anyone at the bar now or ever.

That plea deal is going to start looking better and better to Edwards.  Don’t be surprised if Edwards changes his mind and takes the misdemeanors and a few months at Club Fed in the near-to-mid future.