Edwards trial opens with a jolt

Judge says key witness’ behavior questioned

ablythe@newsobserver.com April 23, 2012 

— It did not take long for the John Edwards trial to get tawdry, and for once it was not the former presidential candidate at the center of the salacious allegations.

It was Andrew Young, the former aide who is expected to be a key witness for the prosecution.

Lawyers had just selected the nine men and seven women who will spend the next several weeks in the jury box when Judge Catherine Eagles shifted the focus from the defendant to Young. His testimony will be at the heart of the government’s claims that Edwards, 58, violated campaign-finance laws in his 2008 presidential run to cover up his extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter.

With the jury and four alternates cleared from the courtroom, Eagles revealed that defense attorneys had asked permission to mention in their opening statement a one-night stand that Young, a married man and father of three, had with a co-worker in 2007.

The defense also wanted to let jurors know that Young, the aide who wrote an unflattering tell-all book about the 2008 campaign, had contacted several witnesses during the last several weeks and asked what they were going to say at trial.

Barely one hour into the first day of testimony, sex and conniving had already surfaced in a trial based on a scandal first reported by The National Enquirer.

However, in a courtroom packed with media, sketch artists and curious lawyers, Eagles muzzled any unprompted mentioning of Young’s alleged sexual liaison.

“The court finds there’s no good reason to bring this up in opening statements,” Eagles said.

The judge did, however, agree to permit mention of the phone calls as long as defense attorneys did not call it “witness tampering,” which is illegal.

Young is first to take stand

Young, who was the first witness called by prosecutors, opened his testimony with a bit of his personal history and an account of his first star-struck meeting with Edwards in 1998 during the U.S. Senate campaign. He is expected to be on the witness stand for the next several days.

Young also mentioned his first meeting with Hunter, in September 2006. She was with Edwards at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., in an area where private jets come in. Young gave the two a ride and said he was suspicious then that they were having a relationship.

Young also gave an account of getting arrested for driving while impaired after drinking during and after an argument with his wife about his work with Edwards.

She complained that he was not getting any big jobs with the campaign, that he had not moved up through the ranks.

“My response was I believe in this man,” Young testified.

Young’s testimony was preceded by opening statements from government and defense lawyers that focused as much on Young as Edwards.

Prosecutors tried to portray the former staffer as a political groupie who was deceived and manipulated by Edwards, a man they described as overly and blindly ambitious with “selective memory.”

Prosecutor David Harbach acknowledged that Young had been granted immunity and would be testifying with the hopes of not being prosecuted. Young and his wife had mixed funds from at least one wealthy supporter with their own. He has been dishonest, such as when he claimed briefly to be the father of Frances Quinn, the daughter born of the extramarital affair of Rielle Hunter and Edwards.

“You will not like him,” Harbach conceded. “But remember this: Mr. Young is an exhibit as well as a witness.”

The trail of money

Defense attorney Allison Van Laningham, a plainspoken Greensboro lawyer brought onto the Edwards team about a month ago, urged jurors to follow the money in the case.

That trail, she contended, would lead them to a $1.5 million house on a $300,000 lot just outside Chapel Hill where Young, a political staffer, and his wife Cheri, a part-time nurse, live.

The $750,000 provided by Listerine heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, Van Laningham said, did not go to Edwards.

It ended up “in the pockets of Andrew and Cheri Young and it ended up in the wood, the stone and the roof of their $1.5 million home in Chapel Hill,” she said.

The six-count indictment against Edwards accuses him of conspiring to secretly obtain more than $900,000 from two wealthy supporters – Mellon, a centenarian who lives on a 4,000-acre estate in Virginia, and Fred Baron, a Texas lawyer who died in October 2008.

Defense attorneys conceded that Edwards figured out at some point that Baron had been providing money to Hunter, but they contended Baron was doing so as a friend.

Baron, Van Laningham pointed out, continued to provide money for Hunter long after Edwards discontinued his presidential run in January 2008.

Edwards, his defense team contended, had no idea that payments for his mistress from two supporters could be classified as campaign finances.

Instead, the defense pointed a finger at Young, saying he not only devised the scheme of getting payment and claiming paternity on his own, but that he did it to fatten his own private coffers.

“The evidence will show you the manipulation lies with Andrew Young himself,” Van Laningham said.

Edwards, his defense team contends, is a man who loves all his children. He’s a man, Van Laningham said, who tried to hide his continued affair with Hunter, a campaign videographer, and her pregnancy from his wife.

“John Edwards,” Van Laningham said in her 45-minute opening statement, “is a man who has committed many sins, but no crimes.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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