Local Politics

Ex-aide's wife: Edwards ordered 'get the money in'

Posted April 30, 2012 1:59 p.m. EDT
Updated April 30, 2012 7:23 p.m. EDT

— Andrew Young's devotion to his former boss, John Edwards, was so complete that he pulled his wife into an elaborate scheme to obtain money for Edwards' pregnant mistress and then hide her from the media during the 2008 presidential campaign, Young's wife tearfully testified Monday.

After Young spent most of last week testifying in Edwards' criminal trial, prosecutors are using Cheri Young to corroborate much of his account and rebuild his credibility, which was eroded in two days of cross-examination, for jurors.

Her testimony was cut short Monday afternoon when she went home with a migraine headache. She is expected back on the witness stand Tuesday, when defense attorneys will likely begin cross-examining her.

Edwards is charged with conspiracy, filing false campaign reports and four counts of accepting illegal campaign contributions in connection with the nearly $1 million that two donors secretly paid in 2007-08 to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he ran for the White House.

Andrew Young began working for Edwards shortly after Edwards was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, and Cheri Young said got used to "not having my husband" because he was at the beck and call of Edwards and his family. Yet, Edwards' demands on her husband reached a new level after Hunter entered the picture, she said.

The Youngs had made close to a $450,000 profit from the sale of their Raleigh home, and Edwards asked for some of the money for Hunter, Cheri Young said, adding that she told her husband to refuse the request.

Edwards then told Andrew Young he had to find another way to pay for Hunter's living expenses, she said. After other options didn't work out, she said, they settled on Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a Virginia heiress who said she would be willing to handle any expenses to help Edwards get elected.

Mellon said she wanted to write the checks from her personal account to Bryan Huffman, her interior decorator, so her lawyer wouldn't get involved, and Edwards wanted the checks forwarded to Cheri Young, who could cash them using her maiden name so that the money couldn't be connected to her husband or Edwards' campaign, Cheri Young testified.

"I cannot tell you how disgusted I was," she said about being drawn into the effort. "Why me? This was my husband’s fight. He was the one to put out the fires. That’s all he did every day for them – fix the problem, fix the problem, fix the problem. Now, guess what, I had to fix it.“

Because her husband was a fundraiser for Edwards, she said, she knew there were limits to campaign donations. So, she questioned the legality of Mellon's checks, which started out at $10,000 and quickly grew to six figures, but she said Edwards assured her and Andrew Young that the payments were legal.

"I heard Mr. John Edwards tell me on the phone that he checked with campaign lawyers, and he told me this is not a campaign donation. This was legal," she testified. "(Edwards said,) 'Get the money in,' and he was very short and very angry."

Cheri Young said she and her husband also had a vested interest in keeping Hunter happy and quiet.

"My husband and I had both given everything for years to make this man president, and we were at the peak point. If I didn’t do this to take care of this woman, we were going down,” she said.

The defense told jurors last week that Andrew Young schemed to get money from Mellon to finance a lavish lifestyle for his family and that Edwards knew nothing about the money she paid out.

Both Andrew and Cheri Young said that the money from Mellon went into their regular bank account, but that they also paid Hunter's rent, bought her a car and paid for her other expenses out of that account. Andrew Young admitted last week that spending on a home he and his wife were building in Chapel Hill also increased during the period Mellon's checks were being cashed.

When Hunter became pregnant, Edwards asked the Youngs to take her in so that the media in New York wouldn't be able to find her, Cheri Young said, noting that Hunter arrived later that same day.

"She walked down the hall, took a big spin in the entry way and opened her arms and said, 'I'm here,'" Cheri Young recalled. "I literally leaned back in the couch and just looked in awe."

She said she tried to keep her family functioning normally during Hunter's stay, but she and her three children were ordered out of the house whenever Edwards stopped by to visit Hunter.

Cheri Young broke down on the stand as she explained why she agreed to let her husband claim to be the father of Hunter's baby. She said she was against the idea, but she didn't want to be the one responsible for Edwards' campaign "exploding," so she went along with the scheme.

The women on the jury seemed moved by her emotion – the jury was excused for a short time so she could compose herself – but Edwards just leaned back in his chair and stared at her, glancing briefly at his watch.

Cheri Young later detailed how Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron, who was the finance chairman for Edwards' campaign, then flew the Young family and Hunter across the country in his private jet, putting them up at posh resorts in Florida and California and at his vacation home in Aspen, Colo.

"I wanted to go home, but I didn't have a choice in where we were going," she testified.

When Andrew Young told Baron that the family needed to return to North Carolina, Baron suggested that Hunter stay at another of his homes, Cheri Young said, noting that Hunter didn't like that idea.

"She was livid. She could not believe that Mr. Baron was trying to ship her off to some other state on her own. She refused to continue the journey if Andrew and I were not with her. We did everything for her," she said.

Baron's wife, Lisa Blue, a lawyer and psychologist, also advised the Youngs not to rock the boat, saying Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, posed a threat to them.

"She told me, 'Mrs. Edwards isn't well. I'm a doctor, and she's not mentally healthy,'" Cheri Young recalled Blue saying. "There's a good chance she would be a harm to you and your family."

Federal prosecutor Robert Higdon asked her if she really thought Elizabeth Edwards would physically harm her, her husband or her children.

"Yeah, we were so scared through the whole thing," Cheri Young replied. "We were the only people who knew the truth."