Uneven day for prosecutors in Edwards trial
Posted May 7, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C. — After the lawyer for a wealthy heiress undermined the government's case against John Edwards on Monday, a Chapel Hill developer testified that Edwards tried to get money from the woman.
Edwards is charged with violating federal campaign finance laws by accepting contributions far above legal limits and not reporting them.
Prosecution witnesses have over the past two weeks outlined an alleged scheme in which Rachel "Bunny" Mellon routed $725,000 through back channels to Andrew Young, an Edwards aide who was looking after Rielle Hunter, a campaign staffer with whom Edwards had a child.
Young said Edwards then encouraged him to claim to be the baby's father to squelch media questions about a possible affair between Edwards and Hunter that would have derailed his campaign. Edwards didn't acknowledge the affair until months after he had dropped out of the race, and he continued to deny paternity of the child until early 2010.
Developer Tim Toben described for jurors a late-night rendezvous in December 2007 in which he was asked to whisk Young and his wife and a pregnant woman wearing sunglasses and a scarf to Raleigh-Durham International Airport for a flight aboard a private jet.
The following day, he said, he received a phone call from Edwards. "He just wanted to thank me and (said) he'll never forget what I did for him," Toben said.
Later, Toben learned that the pregnant woman was Hunter, and she asked him to pick up some personal items from a house she was renting in the gated Governors Club community near Chapel Hill. Once was a photo of her and Edwards from her nightstand that was signed "I love you, John," he testified.
Toben, whose family had donated to Edwards' campaign and who hosted a fundraiser for the candidate, said he began rooting against Edwards at this point, realizing that Edwards was having an affair.
"The public could forgive a mistress but not a mistress with a baby," he said.
Still, he continued to associate with Edwards, and the two had dinner in the summer of 2008. Edwards had ended his campaign months earlier but still held out hope for a top post in the subsequent administration.
If all else failed, Toben recalled Edwards saying, he could fall back on plans for an anti-poverty center that Mellon would fund for him.
"Mr. Edwards indicated that it would be a chip shot for her to endow that foundation with $50 million," he testified.
The figure popped up a year later when Edwards confronted Toben on a Chapel Hill street, and Toben said the former U.S. senator issued an ultimatum.
"You need to choose between your friendship with Andrew and your friendship with me," he said Edwards told him. "Andrew really crossed the line, and he's not to be trusted."
Edwards told Toben that Young tried to bilk Mellon out of $50 million.
"I guess he forgot that just a year earlier he said it would be simple to get that same amount from her," Toben testified.
Earlier in the day, Mellon's attorney, Alex Forger, testified that the money used to hide Hunter during the campaign was meant as a gift and not a campaign contribution. To convict Edwards, prosecutors must prove that the donations were made to influence the outcome of an election.
On Friday, Forger testified that Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, who represented Edwards in 2008, said that the former candidate agreed that Mellon's money had been provided for his benefit.
He was more combative with prosecutors on Monday, saying that Mellon, who is now 101 and too frail to testify, never meant to influence an election by providing extra money to Edwards. Young went to her and said Edwards needed the money for personal reasons, and she readily complied because she had a crush on Edwards and considered him a friend, Forger said.
"She liked him as an individual, as a person. It wasn't because he was running for president," he testified. "If he wanted to be president of Duke University, she would have supported that.
"One of her basic values is loyalty as a friend," he continued.
Mellon had already given more than $6.3 million to groups affiliated with Edwards and had donated the maximum allowed to his campaign. She was a fervent admirer of Edwards who was so upset at public criticism of a $400 haircut he received that she had told Young that she was willing to take care of any expenses that Edwards needed to have covered.
Forger also testified that he considered Young to be a rogue agent who might have scammed Mellon without Edwards' knowledge.
The defense has argued that Young masterminded the scheme to milk Mellon for money to pay for a home he and his wife were building near Chapel Hill and to finance a lavish lifestyle. Edwards knew nothing about her checks to Young, according to the defense.
On cross-examination, Forger said Bryan Huffman, the interior decorator who helped conceal Mellon's payments to Young, told him that Edwards was unaware of the checks. He also testified that he amended Mellon's 2008 tax return to address the payments, which were included as gifts to Huffman, and pay the related gift tax.
"Is there any doubt in your conversation with her that you said this could not be a campaign contribution?” defense lawyer Abbe Lowell asked.
"No doubt," Forger replied.
"Is there any doubt she said it was not a campaign contribution?” Lowell asked.
"No doubt," Forger again replied.