Local Politics

Edwards' campaign finance trial opens Monday

Posted April 22, 2012 10:30 p.m. EDT
Updated April 22, 2012 11:11 p.m. EDT

— More than four years after John Edwards halted his presidential bid in a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans neighborhood, the wreckage of his campaign pulls into a Greensboro courtroom on Monday for its final stop.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to give their opening statements in Edwards' trial on six charges that he violated campaign finance regulations when wealthy donors provided nearly $1 million to hide Rielle Hunter, his pregnant mistress, during the 2008 run for the White House.

The former U.S. senator from North Carolina has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were handed up last June by a grand jury after a two-year investigation.

The late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, who was Edwards' national campaign finance chairman, and campaign donor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, an heiress and socialite who is now 101 years old, provided the money for Hunter's medical care and to pay for flights and accommodations for her during the campaign. Both had already given Edwards' campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.

Edwards denies having known about the money, so prosecutors will try to prove he sought and directed the payments to cover up his affair, protect his public image as a "family man" and keep his presidential hopes viable.

The trial is expected to last six weeks and feature a mix of sex, money, politics and power usually only seen in movies or on television. The case has such a high profile that it took U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles five days to find a pool of potential jurors that she deemed fair and impartial.

The government's star witness will be Andrew Young, who was such a close confidant to Edwards during the 2008 campaign that he claimed paternity of Hunter's daughter and helped shield her from the media to protect Edwards' image and the campaign.

Following years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged in 2010 that he had fathered Hunter's daughter.

Young later wrote a tell-all book about Edwards' affair and failed campaign, "The Politician."

Other former members of Edwards' campaign staff, Baron's widow and an interior decorator who helped funnel money from Mellon to Young also could testify for the government.

Prosecutors gave Hunter legal immunity for her testimony, as long as she's truthful, and Edwards' defense team also has her listed as a potential witness.

Edwards' lawyers have argued that the money for Hunter was personal gifts and not contributions to his campaign. Two former members of the Federal Election Commission support that contention, but it's unclear whether Eagles will allow their testimony. Prosecutors maintain witnesses aren't allowed to interpret the law for jurors.

The trial was scheduled to begin in January, but Eagles postponed it because Edwards was suffering from an irregular heartbeat at the time and needed to undergo a medical procedure.

Edwards showed no signs of ill health as he attended every day of jury selection in the past two weeks. His parents and elder daughter Cate accompanied him to the federal courthouse every day, quietly sitting behind him in the courtroom.

Cate Edwards is listed as a possible witness for the defense.

If convicted, Edwards faces a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison and up to $1.5 million in fines.