The New York Times belatedly started investigating the John Edwards/Rielle Hunter affair, but Serge Kovaleski and Mike McIntire may have made up for some lost time. In their report yesterday, they uncovered a network of lawyers attempting to cover up the affair and to get payment to Hunter, all connected to Fred Baron, currently a bundler for the Obama campaign. The payments to Hunter appear to have been laundered through Edwards’ campaign and PAC, putting the origin of the money into question:

Seemingly issued independently of Mr. Edwards, the statements appeared to deflate the anonymously sourced reports of an Edwards tryst. But what went unnoticed was that the two lawyers shared an important connection to Mr. Edwards that suggests they were part of an orchestrated effort to protect him, one that is continuing even after he admitted last week that he had an affair with Ms. Hunter but denied that he fathered her child.

The lawyers are linked through Fred Baron, a wealthy Dallas lawyer and former finance chairman for the Edwards campaign who was a key player in the campaign’s response to the scandal. Mr. Gordon has worked with Mr. Baron on class-action personal injury cases, and Ms. Marple helped defend a lawsuit brought against both men and their law firms by an asbestos manufacturer. …

The review found that Mr. Edwards’s political action committee went to unusual lengths to make a final $14,000 payment to Ms. Hunter’s film company months after its contract with the committee had ended. The payment was issued while the committee was short on cash and could pay its bills only after receiving thousands of dollars from Mr. Edwards’s presidential campaign and donations from four people, including Mr. Baron’s wife.

Most people have focused on the paternity of Hunter’s child and the timing of the affair, but this payment appears to show some serious laundering of payoff cash.  The money went to Hunter in April 2007, before Hunter was pregnant, but well after the purported end of the affair in December 2006.  Further, Hunter had already received $100,000 from Edwards’ PAC by the end of 2006, which would seem more than sufficient for the minimal amount of work produced by Hunter.

The Edwards PAC apparently didn’t consider it generous enough, but the timing looks very suspicious.  His PAC paid Hunter’s company an additional $14,086 on April 1, 2007.  Just coincidentally, at the same time, the PAC received $14,035 from the Edwards presidential campaign — for “office furniture”.  What makes this sudden largesse even more suspicious is that the PAC had less than eight thousand dollars in the bank before the donations from Edwards’ presidential campaign — and that during a time when Edwards had already begun to trail badly in fundraising behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

What other money had the PAC received before April 1, 2007?  It only took in $18,000 for the entire first quarter — which came from Fred Baron’s wife and three other donors.

Something seems very suspicious in these transactions, and newly-minted Obama bundler Baron appears to occupy a central role in the mystery.  These questions have more import for American politics than the “who’s your daddy” speculation about the paternity of Hunter’s child.  If Edwards and his associates used political campaigns and political-action committees to launder hush money, the Department of Justice may need to start asking the questions — instead of the National Enquirer.

Update (AP): A key detail from the AP’s companion story:

An associate of Edwards, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the $14,000 was paid to Hunter only after she relinquished about 100 hours of cutting-room floor videotape excerpts that were not part of four short Web videos she had produced for Midline Groove Ltd. in 2006.

Why would Silky’s campaign have been so keen on buying up footage that supposedly wasn’t interesting enough to make it off the cutting-room floor in the first place? Probably because they knew about the affair and thought the footage might show Edwards being chummy with Hunter on the trail — a goldmine of embarrassment if/when the affair was finally exposed and the tabloids starting scrambling for evidence. They may have paid $14,000, in other words, just to cover Edwards’s ass. Oh, and here’s another fun detail: Media Blog notes that Edwards sent out an e-mail appeal for donations last year one day before the check to Hunter was cut. Exit question via Byron York: When, precisely, did the Times decide this non-story was a story?