Ex-Edwards staffer recalls angry confrontation over affair
Posted May 9, 2012 1:25 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2012 9:52 p.m. EDT
GREENSBORO, N.C. — A former campaign staffer Wednesday recounted an angry confrontation between John Edwards' wife and a donor about his efforts to hide the two-time presidential candidate's mistress.
Jurors and even Edwards were visibly moved by Jennifer Palmieri, who wept as she remembered Elizabeth Edward's death in December 2010.
Palmieri will be among the government's final witnesses. Prosecutors said they plan to call a couple of FBI and IRS agents on Thursday before resting their case.
Edwards' mistress, Rielle Hunter, won't be a witness for the prosecution, although the government provided her legal immunity for her testimony.
Edwards is charged with violating federal campaign finance laws by accepting contributions far above legal limits and not reporting them. Prosecutors allege he used nearly $1 million from Virginia heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron to keep Hunter quiet and his 2008 bid for the White House alive.
When Elizabeth Edwards learned in October 2007 that Baron was paying Hunter's expenses, she became enraged and confronted him and Edwards at an Iowa hotel, said Palmieri, who was Edwards' communications director and a close friend of his wife.
Prosecutors suggested that John Edwards' presence during the confrontation show that he was aware of a scheme to hide his affair, but the defense maintains that Edwards sought outside funds for Hunter to spare his wife's emotions, not to influence the 2008 election.
Palmieri backed up the defense's position when she said that Elizabeth Edwards "just wanted to get out of the campaign."
"She didn't think John was going to get the nomination," she testified. "This was about protecting her and her family."
Elizabeth Edwards desperately wanted to believe that her husband wasn't the father of Hunter's daughter, Quinn, despite his previous lies to her, Palmieri said.
"She had a concern about being alone, that when she and John decided to separate, she was concerned that when she died, there would not be a man around who loved her," Palmieri said as she fought back tears.
Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010 after a six-year battle with breast cancer.
Earlier Wednesday, another former staffer told jurors that Edwards consulted well-known actors and a Hollywood director before publicly acknowledging that he fathered Hunter's baby.
Wendy Button, who was a speech writer for Edwards, described her work three years ago to draft a statement for Edwards. He finally issued it in January 2010.
Button said Elizabeth Edwards threatened to leave her husband if he issued the statement, so John Edwards struggled with the matter for months. He had acknowledged an affair with Hunter after ending his campaign in 2008, but he had repeatedly denied fathering her daughter, Quinn.
"You could hear it in his voice that he was struggling with this. It was painful to hear him talk about it," Button said.
As the draft statement went through more than a dozen revisions, Button testified, Edwards sent copies to actor Sean Penn and actress Madeleine Stowe and to Paul Haggis, who directed "Crash" and other films and wrote screenplays "Million Dollar Baby," "Casino Royale" and other movies. No reason was mentioned for circulating the draft.
Under cross-examination, Button admitted that she is writing a book about her work with Edwards and is trying to line up a movie deal based on the book.
Former Edwards aide Andrew Young also has written a book about the affair, "The Politician," and has sold the movie rights to it. Young initially claimed to be the father of Hunter's baby to squelch media speculation during the early 2008 primaries that Edwards was having an affair.
Button said that she had helped Young when he testified before a federal grand jury and when Hunter filed a lawsuit against him over property she claimed he took from her, including a videotape purported to show her having sex with Edwards.
“It looked like he was being punished,” she said, noting he was outgunned by the size of the legal team on Hunter's and Edwards' side. "I felt like I needed to reach out to him to let him know how I felt bad for what was happening to him.”
The defense has tried to portray prosecution witnesses as people working together to bring Edwards down for their own financial benefit.
Testimony was delayed Wednesday morning as U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles examined the camera and a phone of a New York Post photographer. Two jurors in the case told Eagles they thought the photographer had taken their picture Tuesday during a lunch break.
Eagles didn't find any evidence that jurors had been photographed but she warned the media and other spectators to steer clear of the jurors while the trial was going on.