An arrest warrant was issued, and Edwards made his first court appearance Friday afternoon in Winston-Salem.
He pleaded not guilty to federal charges. Edwards did not have to post bond but he was ordered to surrender his passport. He is not allowed to leave the continental U.S. and he is prohibited from contacting one of his campaign benefactors, Bunny Mellon.
After leaving the courtroom Friday, Edwards made a brief statement in front of the courthouse that lasted about 20 seconds.
"There's no question that I've done wrong, and I take full responsibility for having done wrong," Edwards said. "And I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I have caused to others, but I did not break the law and I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law. Thank you all very much."
Edwards was accompanied by his older daughter, Kate.
The case of United States of America v. Johnny Reid Edwards contains six counts, including conspiracy, four counts of illegal campaign contributions and one count of false statements
The indictment says he "did knowingly and willfully combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with others" to "accept and receive, while a candidate for federal office, contributions" "in excess of the limits of the Elections Act."
"Democracy demands that our election system be protected, and without vigorously enforced campaign finance laws, the people of this country los their voice," said U.S. Attorney George Holding in a statement after the indictment was announced.
The indictment says Edwards' actions caused his campaign to file false campaign finance reports. It goes on to say the purpose of the conspiracy was to cover up the former senator's affair with Rielle Hunter.
Edwards' attorney Greg Craig said his client will fight the charge.
"John Edwards will tell the court he is innocent of all charges ... he will enter a plea of not guilty. He has not broken any laws and we will defend this case vigorously," he said.
The charges come after a two-year federal investigation. Sources say the Hunter/Edwards affair began in early 2006. Records show Hunter was hired later that year by the Edwards campaign to shoot video of him as he prepared for his 2008 presidential bid.
Former Edwards aide Andrew Young has told ABC11 in previous interviews that when Hunter became pregnant in 2007, he and his wife helped hide her from the media using money from donors.
The indictment filed Friday says Young for a time falsely claimed the child was his.
Young has said he was tasked with taking care of Hunter both during the campaign and after. He described receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from Edwards supporter Bunny Mellon, the wealthy widow of banking heir Paul Mellon, and from Edwards campaign finance leader Fred Baron, who died in 2008.
Young said he had the use of a private jet to hide Hunter from the news media, first in North Carolina, then in Colorado, and finally at a home in California. Young even claimed to be the father of Hunter's baby to protect his boss. Young said the cash from Mellon came in chocolate boxes and he and Edwards referred to it as "bunny money."
The indictment filed Friday does not list Mellon by name, but says "Person C" falsely listed expenses on memo lines of checks for things like an antique table and chairs.
Money from a source listed in the indictment as "Person D" came with a note that read "Old Chinese saying: uses cash not credit cards!"
Hunter's daughter was born in February 2008, a month after Edwards dropped out of the race.
Edwards initially denied having an affair with Hunter but eventually admitted to it in the summer of 2008. He also denied being the father of her child before finally acknowledging that last year. His wife, Elizabeth, died of cancer in December. The couple had formally separated before her death.
Edwards attorney Greg Craig said in a statement last month that prosecutors have never found that campaign funds were misused and the government's theory in the case is without precedent and "wrong on the facts and wrong on the law."
Still unresolved is also a civil lawsuit filed by Hunter against Andrew Young and his wife over the ownership of a video purportedly showing Hunter and Edwards having sex.
Hunter wants the tape back, but the Youngs claim they own it because they say it was abandoned at a home Hunter shared with them. The case is working its way through the courts.
Young has written a book about the Edwards/Hunter affair, and ABC11 also reported Wednesday that Hunter is currently shopping a book deal of her own. People who have read a rough draft of the book say Hunter talks about her relationship with John Edwards but do not get into details about the scandal and the effort to cover up the affair.
Following the news of the indictment of Edwards, Senator Kay Hagan said that her thoughts and prayers are with the Edwards' children, "Cate, Emma Claire and Jack. They have endured so much pain during the last year, including the passing of their remarkable mother, Elizabeth."
Hagan went on to say, "It is now time to move forward expeditiously with the nomination of Thomas Walker for U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. ... In the interest of avoiding even the appearance of partisanship in federal prosecutions, I also asked the White House to allow the sitting U.S. Attorney to complete pending investigations into public officials. Finally, those investigations are complete."