John Edwards knowingly chose to break the law and accept illegal campaign contributions to hide an affair because of his relentless ambition to reach the White House, prosecutors told a jury.
In the heat of his second run for U.S. president in 2007, Edwards decided to accept money well over federal election limits with his marriage and candidacy for the Democratic nomination on the line, the federal government’s lead lawyer, David Harbach, told jurors today in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“It’s often said ambition is an important quality for a politician,” Harbach said. “Like many things in life too much ambition is dangerous. It can become all-consuming that the person will do anything to get what they want. If the affair went public, it would destroy any chance he had to be president, and he knew it.”
Edwards, 58, also a former U.S. senator for North Carolina, is accused of illegally using almost $1 million in contributions from two wealthy donors to conceal his extramarital relationship with filmmaker Rielle Hunter.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles selected nine men and seven women from a final pool of 42 candidates. The jury pool was pulled from North Carolina’s federal middle district, an area that includes 24 counties in the central part of the state and Edwards’s hometown of Robbins. The panel of 16 jurors includes four alternates.
The Federal Election Act prohibits the use of campaign funds for personal expenses and caps the amount individuals may contribute to candidates. Edwards, who fathered a child with Hunter, faces a maximum five-year prison term for each of the six counts against him, including conspiracy, false statements and accepting illegal contributions.
The trial should last six weeks, said Eagles, a former state-court judge who was appointed to the federal bench in 2010 by President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Edwards, who has maintained his innocence, argues that the funds in question weren’t campaign donations and came from his friendships with a 101-year-old multimillionaire heiress, Rachel Mellon, and Fred Baron, a now-deceased trial attorney.
Harbach, who accused Edwards of having selective memory, argued that the former senator knew he was breaking the law when he asked campaign aide Andrew Young to approach Mellon for money.
“He sent Young to do his dirty work,” Harbach said.
Young, who published a book in 2010 detailing the affair, is expected to testify for the government, as is Hunter. Both were granted some immunity in exchange for their testimony, according to court documents. Also on the witness list is Wendy Button, Edwards’s former speechwriter.
Allison Van Laningham, an attorney for Edwards, sought to paint Young as the opportunist who used the candidate’s name to gain access to Mellon’s checkbook.
“John Edwards did not get one penny of this money. All of the cash went into the accounts of Andrew and Cheri Young,” Van Laningham said. “Andrew Young made his life about John. Every menial task Young performed, make no mistake -- what he did, he did for a purpose.”
“He saw John Edwards as his ticket to the top,” Van Laningham said.
‘Follow the Money’
She urged jurors to “follow the money,” arguing that the Youngs received more than $1.7 million in their bank accounts and reported to the Internal Revenue Service that they gave Hunter about $180,000. Part of the money Mellon gave Young was used to build a $1.5 million house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Laningham said.
“John Edwards is a man who has committed many sins but no crimes,” Laningham said. “Humiliation. This is what was motivating John Edwards.”
Last week, Eagles reserved ruling on Button’s request to quash a subpoena from Edwards seeking details on her communications with Young and Edwards since 2009 as well as her dealings with government attorneys during a two-year investigation.
Eagles today allowed defense lawyers to tell jurors about Young’s attempts to contact three former Edwards staffers about their potential testimony in the case. She reserved ruling on how far defense lawyers could question Young on his own alleged affair with a co-worker in 2007. The unidentified co-worker is among the three people he attempted to contact in the past two weeks, Eagles said today.
Prosecutors may lay out the case against Edwards with audio recordings of voice-mail messages, including ones between the former North Carolina senator and Hunter, as well as e-mails, handwritten notes from Mellon, tax records, hotel bills and bank statements, according to court documents.
Edwards met Hunter, an unemployed filmmaker, at a bar in February 2006, Harbach said. The affair began that night and Edwards would later hire Hunter as a videographer for the campaign, Harbach said.
By Dec. 30, 2006, the night Edwards officially announced his candidacy in Chapel Hill, Elizabeth Edwards had found out about the affair and forced him to fire Hunter, which he did. Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010.
In February 2007, Edwards turned to Young, his longtime personal aide, for assistance in locating money to support Hunter, Harbach said. Young remembered Mellon and her enthusiasm for Edwards, Harbach said. Young, a law-school graduate who never took the bar exam, expressed concern that what they were doing was against the law, Harbach said. Edwards told Young it was perfectly legal, Harbach said.
“He manipulated him into doing what he wanted and it worked,” Harbach told jurors.
By June 2007 Mellon had sent out her first check. She would write several more, totaling more than $725,000. The checks were made payable to an interior decorator who endorsed them and sent them to the Youngs, Harbach said. The money went toward a monthly allowance of $5,000 to $6,000, a BMW for Hunter and the rental of a house in a gated community in Chapel Hill.
In December 2007 when tabloid photographers took pictures of a very pregnant Hunter leaving a North Carolina supermarket, Edwards allegedly persuaded Young to claim paternity of the child, telling him it was important for the country, the campaign’s cause and his dying wife, Harbach said.
Baron entered the picture, offering his personal jet to take the Youngs and Hunter to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That trip led to five weeks of private jets and first-class accommodations in Aspen, Colorado, San Diego and Santa Barbara, California, as Edwards sought to keep Hunter out of the media spotlight, Harbach said. In all, Baron spent more than $200,000 to hide the affair from the public and Edwards knew it, the prosecutor said. Baron died in October 2008.
“He told Young repeatedly he didn’t want to know where they were since he didn’t want to have to lie about it,” Harbach said. “He knew full well what he’d done was against the law.”
Young testified he began working for Edwards in 1998 and eventually became a special assistant to the senator in June 2001 when he moved with Edwards to Washington.
“I was the gatekeeper,” Young said his role at the time. “I took care of his briefing book. We spent a great deal of time together.”
Young testified he was the first to cultivate a relationship with Mellon after she called him in 2005. Mellon told him in that conversation she had been friends with the Kennedy brothers and she believed Edwards was the best of both, Young told jurors today.
Young didn’t attend Edwards’s first meeting with Mellon where she pledged $1 million to organizations supportive of the candidate’s 2008 platform on poverty. Young met Mellon in person in June 2006 when she flew him in on a private jet to her Virginia estate. It was there Young first asked for money for Edwards’s presidential campaign.
“She said ‘I believe John Edwards should be president of the United States. What do I need to do to help him achieve that?‘” Young said. “She felt he would be the savior of America.”
Young said he first met Hunter several months later in September 2006 when she flew into Washington’s Dulles airport with Edwards.
Young’s testimony continues tomorrow.
Van Laningham argued that Edwards wasn’t aware Young solicited money from Mellon beyond her official donations. By 2007, Mellon had given more than $6 million to various groups supportive of Edwards, Van Laningham said.
Edwards first learned of the money Mellon gave to Young in August 2008 when an attorney for Mellon raised the issue at an event.
Edwards was “genuinely shocked” and told Mellon that if anyone asks for money in his name not to give it to them, Van Laningham said. No more money was sent after Aug. 14, 2008, she said.
The case is U.S. v. Edwards, 11-00161, U.S. District Court, Middle District of North Carolina (Greensboro).