HILLSBOROUGH — During the latest episode of the battle over a sex tape showing ex-presidential candidate John Edwards being less than presidential, Judge Carl Fox stopped with a quizzical look.
Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer with whom Edwards had an extramarital affair and a child, claims the tape is hers and wants it back from Andrew Young, the former Edwards aide who wrote a tell-all book about the politician's quest for the White House.
At a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on Wednesday, lawyers for Young argued that Hunter had no claim to it. They contended the video belonged to the Edwards campaign or his political action committee.
"What possible purpose would a campaign want - or desire for - a sex tape of a candidate involved in a sex act?" Fox asked rhetorically.
The four-hour hearing over which Fox presided was another immersion in the tawdry and greedy side of politics. The fight is not just about the ownership of the sex tape and other items. The lawyers squabbled about potential profits from the tape, which currently is locked away in the custody of the court.
They argued about the many inconsistent stories swirling around Young, Edwards and Hunter, who was hired by the Edwards campaign to shoot candid video of the candidate.
Young spent much of the first half of the year on TV talk shows and radio programs promoting "The Politician," his insider account of Edwards' 2008 campaign and scandalous affair with Hunter. In interviews and court documents, Young has claimed he found the tape amid trash Hunter left behind at a home he was renting.
Hunter, who started her legal battle against Young months ago, worked for Edwards' political action committee in 2006, shooting behind-the-scenes video as he prepared to launch his second campaign for the White House. The committee paid Midline Productions Comp any, her video production firm, $100,000 that year and then another $14,000 in what a senior campaign official described as a payment for leftover footage.
Lawyers for Hunter claimed Wednesday that Young removed the tape surreptitiously from the fur-lined hat box where she kept her passport, childhood photographs and other personal items. Also in the box, according to Hunter's lawyers, was video the campaign had rejected.
"The campaign did not want some tapes that would upset Elizabeth Edwards," said Wade Barber, the lawyer from Pittsboro on Hunter's legal team. Hunter "was directed to keep those."
Throughout the hearing, lawyers gave glimpses of the life on the run that Hunter and Young lived as they tried to escape the probing questions of reporters from the National Enquirer, which broke the story about the Edwards-Hunter affair and the birth of their daughter, Frances Quinn.
Hunter moved from New Jersey to Chatham County, where she lived briefly with Young and his wife, Cheri, and children in the Governor's Club, a gated community. Then, Young found another rental home for Hunter nearby paid for by Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer, according to Barber.
When National Enquirer reporters showed up in Chatham County, Hunter, Young and his family fled in the middle of the night by private jet to a home in California.
During those quick moves, Hunter left her hat box in the Chatham County home that had been rented for her, Barber said.
After one more move and further reporting by the Enquirer, Edwards publicly acknowledged the affair with Hunter.
Then, according to Barber, Baron wanted Hunter out of the country, a quick move that would require retrieval of her passport from the hat box still in Chatham County.
The lawyers for Hunter and Young disagree on precisely when the sex tape was removed from the hat box.
But in court on Wednesday, Young's lawyers said Hunter knew months before the release of "The Politician" that he had the tape. It was only around publication time that she tried to reclaim the video, they said.
The star goes missing
Hunter's lawyers said that Hunter should have some of the profits from Young's book, saying she was entitled to an undisclosed amount of money because Young had promoted his work by talking about the tape.
Young's attorneys disagreed.
"Nobody's making money on the Edwards sex tape, and nobody's ever made money on the Edwards sex tape," said Robert "Hoppy" Elliot, a lawyer from Winston-Salem.
But in court documents, lawyers for Hunter claimed Young has sold movie rights to his book and that a film is being planned.
Neither Hunter nor Young was at the hearing.
Edwards, now separated from his wife and recently spotted in bars and restaurants in Hillsborough, Durham and Chapel Hill, was not at the hearing, either.
Questions of his whereabouts during the past several weeks were raised during the court proceedings.
With a trial tentatively set for September, Elliot said Young's legal team had tried to serve a subpoena to Edwards so they could depose him later this month. But they had been unable to catch up with him in Orange County or on Figure Eight Island, where he has homes.
Young's lawyer asked Fox on Wednesday whether he would be willing to order Edwards to testify in the lawsuit. "I'll certainly sign an order to direct him to appear," Fox said.
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