WASHINGTON – New questions emerged Friday about John Edwards' longtime chief fundraiser and secret efforts that protected the pregnant woman with whom the former presidential candidate has admitted a shameful affair in 2006.
Fred Baron, Edwards' national finance chairman and a wealthy Dallas-based trial attorney, has acknowledged he quietly began sending money to Rielle Hunter, Edwards' mistress, to resettle in California, along with the family of Andrew Young. Young is the campaign aide who has said he is the father of Hunter's daughter, born after her affair with Edwards.
But Baron is far more intertwined in the matter than previously known, with longstanding personal connections to the lawyers who represented Hunter and Young, according to a review of legal findings by The Associated Press. Hunter's lawyer, Robert J. Gordon of New York, was sued unsuccessfully with Baron and Baron's law firm in 2001 in U.S. District Court in New York in a racketeering complaint. Young's lawyer, Pamela J. Marple of Washington, was among three lawyers who defended Baron and his firm. The case was dismissed in December 2005.
Baron didn't return a phone call or respond to an e-mail from the AP on Friday.
The relationships among Baron, Marple and Gordon were first reported in Friday's editions of the New York Times. The newspaper said Baron acknowledged he might have played a role in hiring Marple and Gordon in the Edwards scandal, after initially saying he did not know how the lawyers were chosen.
Meanwhile, an earlier payment of $14,000 to Edwards' mistress from the candidate's political action committee was exchanged for 100 hours of unused videotape she shot producing short Web movies for which she already had been paid $100,000, an Edwards associate told the AP. Neither Edwards' advisers or this associate would discuss the purpose of the payment on the record.
That payment from Edwards' OneAmerica political action committee, which came after Hunter stopped working for it, came in April 2007, months before Baron quietly began sending money himself to Hunter. Baron has described his payments to Hunter as a private transaction.
Edwards acknowledged last week that he had an affair with Hunter in 2006. The former Democratic presidential contender and senator from North Carolina has denied any knowledge of payments from Baron to Hunter.
Baron's payments could present legal problems, said Washington attorney Cleta Mitchell, who specializes in campaign finance law and who represents Republican candidates and conservative groups. She said all payments to anyone involved in Edwards' presidential campaigns — including Hunter and Young — should have been fully disclosed under U.S. campaign finance laws.
"That would undermine the purpose of the payments, which was to avoid public disclosure of the affair," Mitchell said. "The idea that Edwards' finance chairman can independently hand over substantial sums of money to two campaign workers at a time when Edwards is a candidate and to argue that that is not related to his campaign is a bit preposterous."
The earlier, $14,000 payment to Hunter is significant because its source was Edwards' OneAmerica political action committee, whose expenditures are governed by U.S. election laws. Willfully converting political action committee money to personal use would have been a federal criminal violation.
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., a company Hunter started with a business partner in 2006.
When Hunter provided the last of more than 100 hours of footage, the firm was paid as contracted for, said the Edwards associate.
Legal experts said it was important for Edwards to demonstrate the PAC wasn't paying Hunter merely to keep her quiet about the affair.
"One thing that's possible is that she was still owed money from what she'd done before for the political action committee, but obviously there are less charitable explanations," said Richard Hasen, a professor specializing in campaign finance law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Edwards, who made millions as a personal injury lawyer, has relied heavily on fellow lawyers to finance his political career. And no single law firm has been more generous than Baron's. Through Edwards' election to the Senate from North Carolina and his 2004 presidential bid, the Dallas firm had donated $419,650 to help Edwards win elections, according to the Center for Public Integrity.
Baron, a former president of the main national trade association for trial lawyers and a longtime Democratic donor and fundraiser, also was Edwards' finance chairman in both his 2004 and 2008 campaigns for the presidential nomination.
In the current campaign, lawyers were by far the top contributors to Edwards, providing $7.7 million of his $52 million fundraising total. And a zip code in Dallas, where Baron's firm is based, was the fourth most generous to Edwards this year, giving $115,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics research group.
Besides giving and raising money, Baron provided an even more valuable asset to the Edwards campaign: his firm's corporate jet. Campaign finance records show Edwards' campaign reimbursed the firm more than $400,000 last year under rules that require payment of the equivalent of first-class airfare for such travel — in effect a campaign subsidy, since chartering a jet would cost far more.
Edwards said several times in an Aug. 8 interview with ABC News that the affair with Hunter was short-lived.
But there is evidence that Edwards and Hunter spent months together in 2006, traveling the world and the country as he prepared for his second run for the White House. One of Hunter's friends, Pigeon O'Brien, told the AP that Hunter told her the affair with "John from North Carolina," who was married to a woman who had been seriously ill, began in March 2006. That conflicts with Edwards' statement that the affair started only after he hired her to produce several videos for his Web site. The first payment for that was made in July 2006.
It appears from her videos that she accompanied him on several trips during the summer and into the fall: to Pittsburgh for a rally against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., to Iowa for a speech to an education group, to New York for an appearance on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." She also apparently tagged along during a five-day trip to the African nation of Uganda.
Edwards said several times during his interview with ABC the affair ended in 2006, when he confessed to his wife Elizabeth that he had "made a very serious mistake, a mistake that I am responsible for, and no one else."
"And then she forgave me, and we went to work on it," Edwards said.
But Hunter was still hanging around Edwards late into the year. At the end of December, Hunter's videos debuted online. And a few days after Christmas, when Edwards formally entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hunter was alongside in New Orleans for the announcement. Elizabeth did not make the trip.
On Dec. 29, Hunter attended and filmed a rally in New Hampshire, and flew with Edwards from there to Reno, Nev. Shortly there after, Hunter later told a Newsweek reporter, she was fired.
Edwards said last week he did not plan to speak again about the affair, and a former campaign official reiterated this week that Edwards will not discuss the subject. It's not clear where Hunter is currently living, and a woman who answered at Hunter's lawyer's office this week refused to take a message.
Hunter's sister, reached at her home in Nevada, also refused to comment.
"I talked to John (Tuesday) and he's not doing well," said David "Mudcat" Saunders, who served as Edwards' chief adviser on rural affairs. "He's just — to be very frank with you — he's just not doing well. He needs to be concentrating on himself and his family at this point in his life. He's a good boy. He just made a hell of a mistake."
Edwards has denied Hunter was paid to cover up the affair, and said he had no knowledge that Baron was sending money to both Hunter and Young, the married Edwards staffer who has said he is the father of Hunter's daughter. She was born in February 2008.
In a brief interview this week, Baron reiterated that Edwards and his wife were not involved with Baron's transactions. He said no campaign funds were used and that Hunter was not working for the campaign when he started giving her money.
"The bottom line to it is John Edwards and Elizabeth Edwards had no knowledge of anything I did," Baron said. "I did it as a friend."