Former presidential candidate John Edwards planted seeds of destruction in his 2008 campaign with his extramarital affair and used a former aide as cover, prosecutors said at the close of his trial over alleged campaign-donation violations.
Edwards lied and manipulated staffers and friends to make sure the “nasty little evidence” of his affair with Rielle Hunter didn’t come to light, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon told jurors in closing arguments today in federal court in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“Every witness agreed and understood that this would ruin his campaign,” Higdon said. “Andrew Young showed no hesitation to do anything and everything to serve the man he respected and idolized.”
Edwards, 58, a former U.S. senator from North Carolina and Democratic presidential contender in 2008, is accused of illegally using almost $1 million in campaign contributions to conceal his affair with Hunter, an unemployed filmmaker with whom he fathered a child. He says the funds came from friendships with Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a 101-year-old multimillionaire heiress, and Fred Baron, a now-deceased trial attorney.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles told jurors today that the government doesn’t have to prove the money at issue in the case was for the sole benefit of promoting Edwards’s campaign.
“People rarely act with only one purpose in mind,” Eagles said.
She also told jurors that they can find Edwards guilty if they think he deliberately closed his eyes to the money Mellon and Baron gave on his behalf and the elaborate plans undertaken to shield Hunter from the media spotlight. Jurors can find Edwards acted knowingly, if not willfully, to disregard what would have otherwise been obvious, Eagles said.
Much of the four-week trial focused on the role of Young, Edwards’s former campaign aide. Young, who testified for prosecutors under an immunity agreement, allegedly helped plan and coordinate multiple transactions between Edwards, Baron and Mellon over a period of months. He testified that Edwards targeted other supporters before agreeing to Mellon and assured him the plan to support Hunter was legal.
Young as Opportunist
Lawyers for Edwards argued that Young is an opportunist who approached Mellon on his own and used most of money she ultimately gave for vacations, cars and a $1.5 million home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Abbe Lowell, an attorney for Edwards, told jurors today that the path to a not guilty decision has to cut through Young’s many lies.
“Andrew Young will make up whatever he wants and the government will build a case on it,” Lowell said during closing statements. “John Edwards’s conduct in his affair was shameful but it’s human. Andrew Young’s lies in this case were worse.”
Edwards chose not to take the stand in his defense. His oldest daughter, Cate, who had been listed as a possible witness, also didn’t testify.
Edwards’s decision not to testify was the correct one, said Barry Slotnick, a defense lawyer with the firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC in New York. Slotnick, who represented former U.S. Congressman Mario Biaggi on corruption charges, said Edwards will ultimately be acquitted.
‘Right and Appropriate’
“They’ve played this right and appropriate,” Slotnick said of Edwards’s trial team. “It was a well-tried, well-planned case and I think the jury will be back in short time. John Edwards will be acquitted and he can go on with his life.”
Edwards is charged with violating the Federal Election Act, which prohibits using campaign funds for personal use and caps the amount individuals may contribute to candidates.
Yesterday, Eagles refused to let Edwards introduce as evidence a 2009 letter by the U.S. Justice Department that stated the government won’t prosecute if the Federal Election Commission finds no criminal liability. Eagles also denied a request by the defense to admit a recording of an FEC meeting in July 2011 during which commissioners said the payments in dispute weren’t campaign donations.
The fact that Edwards knew the limits on campaign contributions doesn’t mean he knew that a third-party payment to a mistress would violate campaign finance laws, Lowell said.
“John Edwards may have committed many moral wrongs but he did not commit a legal one,” Lowell said. “He was a bad husband and lied to his family but there is not a remote chance that he violated campaign finance laws or committed a felony.”
Lowell urged jurors to consider the testimonies of former FEC Commissioner Scott Thomas and Edwards’s former campaign treasurer Lora Haggard.
Haggard testified that she didn’t list the payments from Mellon and Baron on FEC reports because they weren’t campaign contributions and it would be illegal to report money spent on a mistress. An audit of the 2008 campaign cleared the payments, Haggard said.
Although Eagles barred much of Thomas’s testimony on FEC rules, he told jurors that third-party payments for a third-party expense such as those in an affair isn’t campaign related.
Advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed court papers in the case supporting Edwards, said today it sent a letter to the Justice Department regarding prosecution of criminal campaign finance violations.
“DOJ can’t have it both ways,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in an e-mailed statement. “It can’t claim it must defer to the FEC one day, then argue that the FEC’s views are irrelevant the next. Our criminal justice system is based on the idea we have fair notice of what is and is not against the law.”
The case is U.S. v. Edwards, 11-00161, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Greensboro).
To contact the reporters on this story: Sophia Pearson in Philadelphia at email@example.com; John Peragine in Greensboro, North Carolina, at firstname.lastname@example.org.