State News

Decorator outlines money scheme in Edwards' trial

Posted May 3, 2012 2:12 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2012 7:26 a.m. EDT

— An interior decorator who was a close friend of billionaire heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon testified Thursday about a scheme to route money from Mellon to John Edwards during his run for the White House.

Neither Mellon, 102, nor the late Fred Baron will be taking the stand in Edwards' campaign finance corruption trial to explain more than $1 million in contributions they made to the candidate during his presidential campaign.

On Thursday, however, the jury heard from Bryan Huffman, who helped funnel large checks from Mellon to the wife of Edwards' close aide, Andrew Young. The Youngs were heavily involved in keeping Edwards' pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, out of the public eye.

Huffman described, for example, receiving a $100,000 check from Mellon with "Antique Charleston Table" written in the memo line. It was part of an elaborate ruse to hide $725,000 intended for Edwards from the Mellon family's money managers by sending checks to the designer for a fantasy furniture business.

The designer then endorsed the checks and sent them on to a fundraiser for Edwards' 2008 campaign.

"We didn't call it a scheme. We called it our furniture business," Huffman said. "Our furniture business did not really involve furniture. It was money for Senator Edwards."

Young's wife, Cheri Young, testified last week that she used her maiden name to cash the checks to create an additional line of separation between the money and the campaign.

Huffman said Mellon had no idea that the money was being used to fund a lavish lifestyle for Hunter. Edwards had told Mellon that the donations were helping fund a poverty center, Huffman testified.

The defense will cross-examine Huffman Friday. They have said that Edwards knew nothing about those checks.

Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign-finance violations. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.

Earlier Thursday, another former close aide to Edwards testified about bungled efforts to keep theaffair hidden from staff members, including an awkward encounter when Edwards' mistress showed up at a hotel weeks after her work filming for the campaign had ended.

For months in 2006, John Davis said that staff members had been concerned that the woman hired as a videographer was becoming too close to Edwards. For example, while other staff members called him "Sen. Edwards," Rielle Hunter called him "Johnny" or "John," Davis said.

"Rielle is a very unique personality," Davis said. "Everyone else on the team had a political background. Rielle didn't have that sort of resume ... She talked a lot about meditation and yogis."

Davis, who traveled with Edwards in 2006 and 2007, is one of several former aides who have testified about their suspicion or knowledge of the affair during Edwards' campaign finance corruption trial. 

Hunter's contract with the Edwards' organization wasn't renewed at the end of 2006, days after a campaign event where Davis said he saw the Democrat's wife crying after seeing her husband with the videographer.

But Davis said Hunter didn't go away. In February 2007, he ran into her in an elevator at the candidate's Detroit hotel.

"We exchanged brief pleasantries," said Davis. "I would have preferred not to have seen her."

When he saw that she pushed the button for Edwards' floor – where Davis also had his room – he stopped on another floor just so he could get into a different elevator car. Shortly after, he was on the phone with his wife to express his shock at seeing Hunter. He heard a knock at the door of his room. It was the mistress, who came in to talk.

"She told me that she and Sen. Edwards were very much in love and that he was concerned that I had seen her," Davis said.

The next morning, Edwards called Davis to his room and, without being asked, denied that he was having an affair with Hunter. During the period in question, Davis was serving as Edwards' body man — a close assistant who travels with a politician or candidate to handle a variety of tasks.

"He told me she was crazy and that we should make sure she didn't talk to him," Davis said.

Asked if he believed Edwards, Davis replied: "I chose to believe him."

But not long after his encounter with Hunter, a change was made in hotel arrangements. Davis said he'd always stayed in a room close to the candidate, but that the staff began staying on a different floor than Edwards during trips.

"Mr. Edwards suggested maybe a little separation would be good," he said.

During a trip in September of 2007, Davis said he went to Edwards' hotel room to retrieve a cell phone that the candidate had borrowed from him. When he got to the room he could hear what sounded like a speakerphone conversation through the door, and he was able to discern both Edwards' and Hunter's voices.

"I heard him ask Rielle if she was showing yet," Davis said. Hunter gave birth to Edwards' child the following February. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.

When reporters photographed the pregnant Hunter outside a grocery story that December, Young and his wife flew with Hunter on a private jet to Florida and they checked in to a luxury waterfront hotel. It was the start of a cross-country odyssey of stays in posh resorts and rented mansions paid for by Edwards' campaign finance chairman, a wealthy Texas lawyer named Fred Baron.

During his testimony, Davis recounted a conversation he heard between Baron and Edwards in the fall of 2007 on the finance chairman's jet. Baron's plane was routinely used to fly Edwards to political events in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states.

Davis said he couldn't remember the exact date, but knew the conversation occurred after a tabloid story exposing Edwards' affair.

With Davis sitting inches away, the aide testified, Edwards and Baron discussed Hunter.

Davis recalled that Baron told Edwards that: "The press wasn't going to find Ms. Hunter because of the way he was moving her around so much."

Davis, who by then knew the stories about the affair and pregnancy were true, said he told Baron to stop talking.

"I didn't want to be aware of this," Davis testified.