GREENSBORO, N.C. — John Edwards was so desperate to find a way to support his mistress that he sought help from several people and concocted an elaborate plan to hide payments made to her once he found a willing donor, a former aide testified Tuesday.
Edwards is charged with conspiracy, filing false campaign reports and four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions in connection with the nearly $1 million two donors paid in 2007-08 to hide campaign staffer-turned-lover Rielle Hunter as Edwards campaigned for the White House.
The defense maintains that most of the money went to former Edwards aide Andrew Young and that the candidate was unaware of the payments. The rest of the money, they contend, was merely a gift by a longtime friend and wasn't a campaign contribution.
Young testified for a second day Tuesday about Edwards' ongoing affair with Hunter and the elaborate means used to hide it from his wife, Elizabeth, and the public.
The testimony mirrored "The Politician," Young's tell-all book about Edwards' affair and failed campaign, and defense attorney Abbe Lowell even thumbed through a copy of the book during breaks to match up passages with the courtroom testimony.
The defense maintains that Young has a vendetta against Edwards after their falling-out in 2008 and must continue denigrating him to sell books and make a proposed movie deal more profitable. Defense attorney Allison van Laningham even noted for jurors on Monday that Young recently contacted three defense witnesses to see what they planned to say on the witness stand.
"Once he could no longer make money being for John Edwards, he had to make money being against John Edwards," van Laningham said in her opening statement.
Young said that Elizabeth Edwards learned of the affair in late 2006 when she answered her husband's cellphone and Hunter was on the other line. He said Elizabeth Edwards later forced her husband to fire her from the campaign, leaving John Edwards with the twin tasks of staying in touch with Hunter and finding a way to support her financially because she often threatened to expose the affair.
Edwards began using a separate cellphone, nicknamed the "Batphone," to call Hunter and put Young in charge of keeping it away from Edwards' wife. Young also said he often served as a go-between, allowing Edwards to call his cellphone or home line and then patching the call through to Hunter so Elizabeth Edwards wouldn't find out.
Young said he was the first person Edwards approached about helping finance Hunter's extravagant lifestyle, because he and his wife had made about $450,000 on the sale of their Raleigh home in early 2007. He said he quickly declined.
"Giving him $200 to $300 was one thing," Young testified, noting that Edwards often bummed cash from him whenever he left town. "But Miss Hunter was going to be an expensive, long-term problem."
Edwards then suggested tapping his longtime friend and former law partner, David Kirby, using a cover story that the money would help Young and his wife build a new home in Chapel Hill. Kirby initially declined but then offered to give Young $25,000 if Young signed an IOU.
Young said he didn't like that idea for two reasons: He didn't want to be responsible for repaying Kirby, and $25,000 wouldn't be enough to satisfy Hunter's "good taste."
A well-known musician, whose name wasn't revealed in court also rejected Edwards' and Young's entreaty, and Edwards nixed the idea of tapping Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer, saying he was too much of a gossip.
Young then suggested getting Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a millionaire socialite from Virginia who fervently believed Edwards was born to be president, to provide the money. She had told Young in a letter that she was willing to handle any campaign expense privately "without government restrictions."
Mellon offered $1.2 million over time, but said she didn't want her lawyers involved. So, she wrote checks from her personal account, and a plan was hatched to route the payments through her interior decorator, Bryan Huffman, to Young. His wife would then use her maiden name to deposit the money into the family's account, and Young would send some money to Hunter.
Young said he expressed reservations about the plan to Edwards, who dismissed them.
"We were all scared to death," he testified. "He was a viable candidate for president. This was a truckload of money – more than had ever moved through our accounts. (We were) getting my wife involved. It was all crazy."
Edwards assured Young that he had checked with campaign finance experts, who told him the secret payments to Hunter were legitimate non-campaign expenses.
"Did you believe him," federal prosecutor David Harbach asked.
After a very long pause, Young replied, "In the end, we felt he knew more about the law than we did, and we believed him."
Mellon wrote five checks between June 7, 2007, and Sept. 26, 2007, totaling $350,000. Because they were made out to Huffman, some included notations like "chairs" or "antique Charleston table."
Young said he had to discuss the payments in code with Edwards, who said he needed to maintain his distance in case he was ever named U.S. attorney general. Still, Young said, Edwards instructed him to put Hunter on a $5,000 monthly allowance so she wouldn't spend too much too quickly and to keep her creditors from getting the money.
The cover-up took on added urgency once Hunter learned she was pregnant in the summer of 2007. Young said Edwards was angry when he heard she was expecting, calling her a "crazy slut" and saying odds were that the child wasn't his.
Hunter again threatened to go public about the affair, and Edwards had her move from New Jersey to North Carolina to get her away from the tabloid media in New York. Young said she lived with his family for three weeks, a time he called "difficult" because she was demanding.
Young then rented a $2,700-a-month home in the gated Governor's Club community in Chatham County for Hunter, but she continued to insist that he or his wife do menial tasks for her, such as going to the supermarket.
"She could go shopping at Nieman Marcus, but she couldn't go to the grocery store," he said.
Her fears of being spotted at the supermarket came true in December 2007 when, Young said, she was surrounded by several reporters in a shopping center parking lot. Young said the cover-up then entered a different stage.
Edwards called him and delivered "a stump speech," Young said, noting Edwards said "this is bigger than all of us" and suggested that Young claim to be the father of Hunter's child.
"If we give the press something they can understand, they'll go away," Young recalled him saying. "They don't (care) about you. It's me they're after."
Both Hunter and Young's wife initially rejected the plan, but they all eventually agreed to it.
"By this time we were in very deep. We were taking care of and hiding his mistress," Young said. "We believed in the cause. It was something we had worked very hard for eight years."
Edwards told Young to contact Baron, who had become the finance chairman of his campaign, and Baron agreed to pay for private jets and luxury hotels for Hunter and Young and his family to keep them away from the press.
The group traipsed from south Florida to Aspen, Colo., to San Diego and eventually wound up in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Baron paid for a $20,000-a-month rental house for them. Baron also left packages along the way with stacks of cash for Young to use.
Although Edwards frequently called Young on his cellphone, Young said Edwards "didn't want to know where we were because he didn't want to have to lie about it if asked."
Prosecutors played for jurors several voicemail messages from Edwards, Baron and Hunter that Young saved to corroborate his story. Edwards mentioned "her" in at least two, which Young said were references to Hunter.
Edwards suspended his campaign in late January 2008 after disappointing finishes in several early primaries, and Hunter gave birth to a daughter a month later. Young said Edwards sounded distant when Young told him about the baby and then cut off contact with him.
"We no longer believed Mr. Edwards was going to follow through with his promise" to take care of his family financially, Young said.
Defense attorneys are expected to begin their cross-examination of Young on Wednesday.