Published April 23, 2012
The key witness against John Edwards testified Monday that a wealthy donor promised to do "everything I can" to elect Edwards president, as prosecutors kicked off the first day of his trial on allegations he used campaign donations to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter.
Edwards, one of the nation's most accomplished politicians before his 2008 fall from grace, faces a lengthy prison sentence if convicted. It is still not clear whether the former trial lawyer will take the stand in his own defense.
Government attorneys argued Monday at a federal courthouse in North Carolina that Edwards, the former senator and failed Democratic presidential candidate, knew two wealthy contributors had provided the nearly $1 million to hide his pregnant mistress. They described Edwards as a "master manipulator" and said the donations were tantamount to "campaign contributions" intended to preserve Edwards' "family man" image during his 2008 campaign.
Andrew Young, a former campaign worker who testified in exchange for immunity, told the court about a meeting he attended with one of the two wealthy Edwards supporters, Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help you become president of the United States," Mellon told Edwards, according to Young.
But the defense argued the donations were merely "private money" intended to protect Edwards' family from embarrassment. Edwards' lawyers told jurors most of the money, which was handled by former campaign staffer Andrew Young, went toward building Young's new house in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The day of opening arguments comes more than four years after Edwards ended his Democratic presidential bid and went on to watch his reputation crumble under the weight of the emerging scandal. He has gone from battling reporters to battling prosecutors who seized upon the scheme as an alleged campaign finance breach. While the lurid details of his affair dominated the headlines going into the summer of 2008, the focus of the trial is the money trail.
At issue is whether the $1 million in donations was intended to help his campaign or whether it was merely intended to prevent his wife and children from finding out about the affair. That could make the difference in whether the jury determines the money was an illegal campaign contribution, as prosecutors argue, or whether the money represented some very generous personal gifts.
Young, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony, is expected to take the witness stand Monday afternoon. The defense hopes to discredit Young's testimony as the prosecution's key witness.
The case will also examine whether Edwards even knew about the payments, which were made on his behalf by his national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and Mellon, a now-101-year-old heiress and socialite. Each had already given Edwards' campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.
"The prosecution is arguing for a broader view of what counts as a campaign contribution," said Ron Wright, a criminal law professor at Wake Forest University. "The defense would like a stricter, more traditional definition of campaign contribution."
Edwards is accused of conspiring to solicit the funds and faces six felony counts -- each carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He has pleaded not guilty.
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles, who was appointed in 2010 by President Obama, will preside. She said she expects the proceedings to last about six weeks.
Edwards denies having known about the money, which paid for private jets, luxury hotels and Hunter's medical care. Abbe Lowell, the well-known Washington lawyer who is representing Edwards, has said that even had Edwards known about the secret payments, his actions wouldn't amount to a crime under federal law. Lowell has said in court that the government's case relies on flawed legal reasoning, that the grand jury process was tainted and that the Republican federal prosecutor who led the investigation was motivated by partisanship.
But prosecutors will seek to prove he sought and directed the payments to cover up his affair, protect his public image as a "family man" and keep his presidential hopes viable.
Much of the money at issue was funneled to Young, the former campaign aide once so close to Edwards that Andrews initially claimed paternity of his boss's illegitimate child. Young and his wife invited the pregnant Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and later embarked with her on a cross-country odyssey as they sought to elude tabloid reporters trying to expose the candidate's extramarital affair.
Young later fell out with Edwards and wrote an unflattering tell-all book, "The Politician." Young and Hunter recently ended a two-year legal battle over ownership of a sex tape the mistress recorded with Edwards during the campaign, agreeing to a settlement that dictates that copies of the video will be destroyed.
After years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged paternity of Hunter's daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, in 2010. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.
Fox News' Jonathan Serrie and The Associated Press contributed to this report.