Published May 04, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The lawyer handling the estate of philanthropist Rachel "Bunny" Mellon took the stand this afternoon in the criminal trial of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
Alex Forger, the final witness for the week, said he discovered the large donor checks Mellon had been writing on her personal account to funnel funds to Edwards aide Andrew Young when one of the checks bounced and he received a call from the bank.
Forger said Mellon, an ardent supporter of Edwards' candidacy, was well aware of the $2,300 federal cap on individual campaign donations. The personal checks in question were in excess of $700,000.
Young, a fundraiser for Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign, testified last week that he took some of the money, along with unreported cash from another donor, and used it to help hide the pregnancy of Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter from the media
Federal law then limited individual campaign contributions to $2,300.
Prosecutors argue roughly $1 million from Mellon and the other donor were intended to help Edwards' presidential aspirations and therefore represent campaign contributions.
Edwards, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina, denies knowing about the payments and has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations.
The defense maintains the money was simply to spare one man's family the embarrassment and anguish of finding out about the affair and that Edwards was unaware of the elaborate financial scheme to keep Hunter in hiding.
Forger said Friday that when discussing the matter with Mellon, "I suggested, since she knew the limit of what could be given in the campaign, this surely had to be a personal gift to Mr. Edwards… and she understood that."
After news of Edwards' affair with Hunter broke, Forger said he became suspicious. He said he wondered whether his client's money was being used to hide Hunter. He said he called another wealthy donor, Fred Baron, who assured him Baron himself had covered all of Hunter's expenses.
According to Forger, when he told Baron about the checks Mellon had been writing, "He said this sounded like a scam perpetrated by Andrew Young."
Forger said Edwards called him several days later.
"Mr. Edwards said he was unaware of these checks," Forger recalled. "He regretted Mr. Young was in such pursuit of Ms. Mellon."
Forger said Edwards suggested Young should pay the money back.
Forger recalled his thought process at the time: "Was this a scam? Was this a criminal matter? Were funds being siphoned off? …I just didn't know."
Forger said he discussed his concerns with Wade Smith, who served as Edwards' attorney during the campaign. During those discussions, he said Smith acknowledged Edwards was aware the money was to his benefit.
After that, court went into recess for the weekend. Testimony is expected to resume Monday morning with Forger still undergoing direct examination by the prosecution.
Earlier in the day, interior decorator Bryan Huffman told prosecutors neither he nor Mellon, his wealthy friend, had knowledge of the affair or cover-up at the time but assumed the money was to benefit Edwards.
During cross-examination of Huffman, lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell grilled Huffman over apparent inconsistencies between his trial testimony and statements he made during an earlier grand jury investigation.
"Didn't you say that it had nothing to do with the campaign and that it would be a gift?" Lowell asked.
Huffman replied, "Not to my understanding."
Lowell asked, "Didn't you say it had nothing to do with the campaign?"
Huffman replied, "I don't recall that. I'm sorry."
As the exchange continued, Lowell followed up, "Do you recall the use of the money … was for what you called 'a personal use.' Do you remember that phrase?"
"Yes," Huffman said.
Huffman endorsed multiple checks from Mellon, listing various pieces of furniture on the memo lines. However, he admitted in court that he never provided Mellon with goods or services.
"Our furniture business did not really involve furniture," Huffman said.
The prosecution asked, "Well, what was it?"
Huffman replied, "It was money for Senator Edwards."
After signing the checks, Huffman sent them overnight delivery to Young and his wife, Cheri, who used part of the money to pay for keeping Hunter in hiding.
However, Huffman testified that Young never told him about Edwards' extramarital affair or efforts to shield Hunter from the tabloid press.
When asked whether Mellon was aware of a $2,300 federal limit on individual campaign donations per election cycle, Huffman laughed and said, "She thought it was a little low."
"The prosecution and the defense essentially agree on the basic picture," said Steven Friedland, a professor at Elon University School of Law. "They're putting different frames around it, however. And it depends on which frame the jury likes."
Next to testify could be Mellon family lawyer Alex Forger, who confronted Edwards about the money.