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Defense shifts focus of Edwards case to campaign finance law

Posted May 14, 2012

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— After three weeks of tabloid-style testimony of illicit affairs, secret payments and an elaborate cover-up, John Edwards' criminal trial shifted Monday to the comparatively dry topic of campaign finance law as the defense began presenting its case.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles delivered a serious blow to the defense, however, in disallowing testimony from a former Federal Elections Commission chairman who has said that money given by two wealthy donors to Edwards' campaign weren't campaign contributions.

Edwards is accused of masterminding a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from Virginia heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron to help hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on all six counts.

Scott Thomas, who has worked on election law for 37 years and spent a number of years on the FEC, said Mellon and Baron both had long-standing relationships with Edwards and would have given him money even if he wasn't running for president.

"These are intensely personal-type expenses," Thomas said. "These payments stem from some other type of context than a campaign."

John Edwards case graphic WRAL.com archive: John Edwards case

Thomas testified after Eagles sent the jury home for the day so she could rule on whether to allow the defense to use him as an expert witness.

Defense attorney Abbe Lowell argued that Thomas could help the jury sort through complex federal elections laws and determine whether it was reasonable for Edwards or any of his campaign staff to view the payments from Mellon and Baron as campaign contributions.

David Harbach, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney prosecuting the case, argued that Thomas would be interpreting the law for the jury, which he said is a job reserved for Eagles.

The judge agreed with Harbach, saying that the case "doesn't seem that complicated to me" and worrying that Thomas' testimony would conflict with her jury instructions at the end of the case.

"He made a pretty good closing argument for the defense," she said after hearing Thomas testify.

Earlier Monday, Lora Haggard, who served as chief financial officer for Edwards' 2008 campaign, said that she never included Mellon's or Baron's money in any campaign finance reports filed with the FEC because she didn't consider them to be campaign contributions.

"They were not used to urge the public to vote for John Edwards," Haggard testified.

Lora Haggard testifies Edwards defense starts with election law

Prosecutors have maintained that the money from Mellon and Baron helped keep Hunter quiet and away from the media during the early stages of the campaign and as Edwards angled for a top position in the future administration of President Barack Obama after dropping out of the race.

Haggard also said that including the contributions also would have required noting the related expenditures on a finance report, which would have violated federal law since campaign contributions aren't allowed to be used for personal expenses, such as prenatal care.

Edwards had no input on the finance reports, she said, and FEC auditors never asked her to amend the reports to include the money from Mellon and Baron, even after Edwards was indicted last summer, Haggard said.

An FEC audit of the campaign, which was required because Edwards accepted federal campaign matching funds, was finally completed last month, she said.

Eagles wouldn't let Haggard testify that the FEC determined last July that the money from the two donors wasn't a campaign contribution. Jeffrey Tsai, another U.S. Department of Justice attorney prosecuting the case, argued outside the jury's presence that the stance stated by one FEC commissioner during an agency meeting was irrelevant to the criminal case.

To prove Edwards guilty, prosecutors must show that he not only knew about the money used in the cover-up, which he denies, but also that the former trial lawyer and U.S. senator knew he was violating the law.

Also Monday, veteran pollster Harrison Hickman, who was a strategist for the Edwards campaign, said that he believed Baron supplied money to Hunter and former Edwards aide Andrew Young out of the goodness of his heart and that Edwards was unaware of it.

Young testified early on in the trial that Edwards asked him to claim to be the father of Hunter's child to squelch media speculation about the candidate having an affair. Baron then paid for Young's family and Hunter to be flown around the country and put up in posh resorts to keep the media away.

"He wanted to help them get away until this whole thing died down," Hickman said, adding that Baron was "persnickety" about bending rules and never would have violated campaign finance law.

51 Comments

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  • ladyblue May 14, 7:26 p.m.

    I just wish this will hurry up and end and stop costing taxpayers money. I think Mr. Edwards will spend little criminal jail time on this issue, unless proven it wasn't a gift. Even if he's found guilty in a couple of the charges, Idon't think they will send him from the kids for any length of time, esp with their mom gone..He's done some dirty things in politics but then IMO it seems politics is a dirty business and it SHOULDN'T be...He may get house arrest and community and banned from political arena. LOL I'm speculating, as everyone else. I know the kids are financially taken care of and protected by family, but a child needs contact with their father as well..

  • itsmyownopinion May 14, 7:22 p.m.

    ...George Holding will be held accountable at the polling booth come November for his politically motivated indictment of Mr. Edwards. George Holding is the REAL culprit here and is not worthy of representing North Carolina in Washington as a Congressman.

    kitticatss

    I totally agree with you on Holding.

  • meeper May 14, 7:17 p.m.

    What a shame that a totally innocent man is being falsely prosecuted. Like the economy, it's all Bush's fault.

  • Nancy May 14, 7:14 p.m.

    In other related news, his daughter will be testifying in defense of her father tomorrow.

  • ConservativeVoter May 14, 7:11 p.m.

    "He needs all of his assets forfeited to the government and needs to be a pauper for the rest of his life when he gets out of prison.- Tax Man"

    Edwards was too smart for that. Elizabeth Edwards took all John's assets during the divorce.

    Elizabeth then willed the assets to his kids and Cate is the administrator and executor.

    So, John is living off of the kids and there are no assets for anyone to seize for fines or any other reason.

  • wildpig777 May 14, 7:08 p.m.

    Perhaps after Edwards is acquitted he and Paul Ron can run together as independents?- PIE

    Don't insult the integrity of Ron Paul with such a comparison,, ron paul has more integrity and honesty in his finger nail than john edwards ever accquirred in his disgusting life. John edwards is a fine example of the typical lawyers we find in nc.

  • Tax Man May 14, 7:07 p.m.

    Edwards completely ran this conspiracy. He needs to go to prison for a very long time and pay back all the costs of prosecution and the illegal campaign contributions he got plus the taxes on all the money he used for personal reasons. What a royal creep! An adulterer, liar, cheater, phony, corrupt politician. Just lock him up and throw away the key! He needs to be disbarred and put in prison. He needs all of his assets forfeited to the government and needs to be a pauper for the rest of his life when he gets out of prison. The biggest crook in the history of NC>

  • Tax Man May 14, 7:03 p.m.

    Please just convict this creep and give him many years in prison. He tried to steal the presidential election by lies and deceit - he needs to spend at least 10 years in prison for his illegal activities and pay back all the illegal campaign contributions he received. Just lock this sorry phony up and don't give him any time to turn himself in. Conviction go straight to prison! He is the epitome of a corrupt, criminal politician and needs to be the example of what happens when you think you are above the law. Just put him in prison for a very long time.

  • seankelly15 May 14, 6:58 p.m.

    Mr William - "and the libs in 90210 keep on giving..."

    So what? Ridiculous comment.

  • ConservativeVoter May 14, 6:57 p.m.

    "And do the legions of expert witnesses testify out of the goodness of their hearts? Somehow I think not. - piene2"

    If Edwards would confess his crimes, this wouldn't be an issue would it.

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