Prosecutors rested their case against John Edwards on Thursday after calling to the witness stand some of his closest friends and advisers, many of whom gave dramatic, often unflattering testimony about the former presidential candidate whose once-promising political career collapsed amid a sex scandal.
Edwards is accused of being the mastermind behind a plan to use secret payments from two wealthy campaign donors to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. The trial centers on whether Edwards knew what the money was being used for, and when he knew it.
While the past 14 days of testimony has focused on the money trail, the trial has also revisited Edwards’ breathtaking fall. He had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer on his campaign, as he renewed his marriage vows to his cancer-stricken wife. He fathered a child with Hunter and then a decision was made for his right-hand man to claim paternity so Edwards could keep up his lofty political ambitions. And he lied repeatedly to his wife, his advisers and the public.
Jurors will have to look beyond Edwards’ character, though. As prosecutors wrapped up their case, they showed the jury records detailing the money spent to hide Hunter — $319,500 in cash, luxury hotels, private jets and a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif. The bills, flashed up on a large screen for the jury to see, were all paid by Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who served as Edwards’ 2008 campaign finance chairman.
Baron began paying the expenses after tabloid reporters tracked down the pregnant mistress in Chapel Hill, where she had been secretly living in a house rented for her only a few miles from the Edwards family estate. Hunter was being closely watched over by Edwards’ once-close confidant, Andrew Young, who falsely claimed paternity of boss’ baby as the tabloid prepared to expose the affair.
As part of the cover-up, Baron paid for Hunter — and Young and his wife — to cross the country on private flights worth more than $80,000 and stay in waterfront hotel suites costing nearly $44,000, including bar tabs and frequent room service. Baron also leased a mansion in Santa Barbara for the mistress as she prepared to give birth, with total costs over the next eight months totaling $184,378.
Several witnesses testified that Edwards knew what the money was spent on; others were less definitive.
The government must prove Edwards had criminal intent, and his defense team will ask U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles on Friday to dismiss the case, arguing they haven’t proven their case. If the judge allows the trial to go forward, the defense will begin presenting its side Monday — and may call Hunter to testify. Edwards could also take the stand in his own defense.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations. Prosecutors say he spearheaded a scheme to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from Baron and 101-year-old heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon to hide his affair and keep his presidential campaign viable.
Edwards denies knowing about the secret payments, which his lawyers contend were gifts from friends rather than campaign contributions. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
At one point, defense attorneys got Young to acknowledge that much of the $1 million was used to build the Youngs’ dream house in North Carolina. Young and his wife also said they spent some of the money to hide Hunter. Young testified about meeting Edwards on a secluded, rural road months after his campaign ended.
Edwards shocked Young by denying any knowledge of $725,000 in secret checks from the elderly heiress, Young testified.
“I didn’t know about these, did you?” Edwards asked, according to Young.
Worried he was being taped, Young lied and said no.
Much of the money was spent after Edwards suspended his campaign at the end of January 2008 following a string of losses in the early primary states. Prosecutors contend it was still campaign money because Edwards had aspirations of becoming vice president or attorney general.
Former Edwards economic policy adviser Leo Hindery testified Thursday he was an intermediary between Edwards and former Sen. Tom Daschle, who was then with Barack Obama’s campaign. On the night Obama won the Iowa caucuses, Edwards asked Hindery to talk to Obama’s camp.
“He asked me to reach out to the Obama campaign and make clear his availability on the ticket,” Hindery said.
Daschle responded: “You really want me to do this now?” Hindery quoted him as saying.
The jockeying didn’t end there. When Obama didn’t accept Edwards with open arms, he started talking to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Hindery said.
There were other highlights from the trial.
Young said Hunter told Edwards she was pregnant in June 2007, weeks later than the aide originally claimed in a tell-all book published in 2010. Young said Edwards, told him to “take care of it,” meaning the pregnancy.
“He said she was a crazy slut and there was a 1-in-3 chance that it (the child) was his,” Young testified.
Defense attorneys tried to paint the Youngs as a money-hungry couple who used the story for their own benefit. At one point, Edwards’ adviser Tim Toben was asked in front of jurors about a sex tape that showed Edwards and Hunter.
Toben admitted he had jokingly talked to Young about how much the sex tape might be worth. The defense lawyers produced a 2009 email from Toben to Young that said: “Wonder what that tape is worth today?”
The tape, and copies of it, was ordered destroyed by in a court settlement between the Youngs and Hunter.