Lawyer: Edwards knew money was for his benefit
Posted May 4, 2012 12:08 p.m. EDT
Updated May 4, 2012 7:41 p.m. EDT
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The lawyer for a wealthy heiress who provided secret payments to a close aide of John Edwards testified Friday that the former presidential candidate conceded that the money had been given for his benefit.
Alex Forger said Edwards' then-lawyer Wade Smith told him in the fall of 2008 that the former candidate agreed that the $725,000 given by wealthy heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon had been provided for his benefit.
It wasn't clear from Forger's testimony at Edwards' criminal trial when Edwards learned about the secret payments to his aide Andrew Young.
Some of Mellon's money was used to hide Edwards' pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter. Whether Edwards had knowledge of the money is a key question in his prosecution on charges related to campaign finance corruption.
Edwards' current attorney has denied Edwards knew Young had gotten the money from Mellon or that it was being spent on the mistress.
The 101-year-old heiress said Edwards should have used his own money for the cover up, her friend testified Friday.
Interior designer Bryan Huffman was asked on the witness stand Friday how Mellon reacted after learning what became of some of the $725,000 in secret checks she had funneled to a fundraiser for Edwards' 2008 campaign.
Huffman, 48, said that Mellon was not one to judge someone for having an extramarital affair. Her relationship with her first husband overlapped with that of her second. But, Huffman said, Mellon had an opinion about how her money was spent.
"She thought maybe you should probably pay for your girlfriend yourself," Huffman replied.
As the courtroom erupted in laughter, even the former North Carolina senator seated at the defense table cracked a smile.
It was a frequent reaction to testimony from Huffman, the congenial Charlotte designer who described himself as the elderly millionaire's "evening friend" — someone she would call for a chat before bedtime.
Mellon, who rarely leaves her expansive Virginia estate, is not expected to testify at Edwards' corruption trial. Forger said Friday that while Mellon's eyesight is failing and she is frail, "her mind is working well."
Her money is at the heart of the government's case against Edwards. Prosecutors allege that Edwards masterminded a scheme to use about $1 million from Mellon and a second wealthy supporter to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House.
Edwards denies knowing about the money and has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
In addition to the $725,000 at issue in the trial, Mellon gave an additional $6.4 million to organizations supportive of Edwards' presidential bid.
Forger testified that Mellon said Edwards reminded her of John Kennedy. She was impressed by his foundation supporting high school students and liked his “two Americas” approach.
Dogged by tabloid reports about his affair, Edwards was forced to withdraw from the race in January 2008. In the following months, it also became clear he also wouldn't be the Democratic nominee for vice president, as he had been four years earlier.
According to earlier testimony, Edwards then turned his attention to raising money for a foundation to fight poverty. Andrew Young, the Edwards aide who helped carry out the cover-up of the mistress and her baby, called Mellon in the summer of 2008 and asked for another $40 to $50 million to endow the foundation. Young also discussed the feasibility of the donation with Mellon's financial adviser.
Huffman, who had sent Mellon's secret checks to Young, said the heiress reacted angrily to the request, which she believed would have required her to liquidate some of her financial holdings.
"She was rather apoplectic at the size of the figure they requested. She was really upset," Huffman testified. "She said, 'I cannot believe that the senator really wanted me for my money all along.'"
Huffman testified that he called Young and told him Mellon was deeply offended and that Edwards needed to smooth things over.
The former senator apologized to her and said that he didn't know how much money Young had asked for, Huffman said. When the interior designer relayed that information to Young, the aide laughed and reiterated that the amount was Edwards' idea.
"He said 'Just call me throw-me-under-the-bus-Andrew,'" Huffman said.
Huffman also testified that he felt that Young was being truthful.
"Everything he told me had been accurate, so my opinion was that he had told us the truth," Huffman said.
Mellon's attorney, Forger, said his suspicions were raised when there was not enough money to cover a check from Mellon to Huffman. According to Huffman, Mellon would write checks for non-existent furniture which he would pass along to Young.
The ruse was intended to throw off money managers like Forger. "We didn't call it a scheme. We called it our furniture business," Huffman said Thursday. When Forger found out and asked Mellon about the manipulation, she told him, "Well, that's the way they wanted the money to be sent for the benefit of the senator," he testified.
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.
In two cases, the Youngs had problems depositing the checks and sent them back to Huffman, he testified Friday. Huffman then deposited the checks into the Youngs' account with a deposit slip they provided.
Huffman said Mellon had no idea that the money was being used to fund a lavish lifestyle for Edwards' mistress. Edwards had told Mellon that the donations were helping fund a poverty center, Huffman testified.
The defense says Edwards knew nothing about those checks.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations involving about $1 million provided by Mellon and another donor. Some of the money was used to hide the Democratic candidate's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted.