Witness: Wade Smith said Mellon's money went to help Edwards

Witness claims Wade Smith said money meant to ‘benefit’ Edwards

ablythe@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2012 

— A cliff-hanger lingered in the air Friday as jurors in the John Edwards trial left the courtroom for the weekend.

Alexander Forger, a tall, elegant man with a shock of white hair who has practiced law for more than 60 years, delivered this line from the witness stand: “He said that John has acknowledged now that this was for his benefit.”

“John” was Edwards, the 58-year-old former U.S. senator fighting federal charges that he conspired to violate campaign-finance laws during his 2008 presidential run. “He” was Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, the courtly dean of the defense bar, who represented Edwards during the federal investigation.

Forger, an attorney for philanthropist Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, who issued $750,000 at the crux of the government’s case against Edwards, did not get the chance to elaborate on the meaning of the word “benefit.”

Prosecutor Robert Higdon suggested to Judge Catherine Eagles that it might be a good time to break for the weekend.

How the term is ultimately parsed could affect the outcome of a trial that, despite all the salacious details, is about the nuances of campaign-finance law. The government contends that Mellon’s money was intended to support Edwards’ 2008 run for the Democratic presidential nomination; and that Edwards violated campaign finance laws by not reporting it and accepting funds in excess of contribution limits. Edwards’ attorneys argue that the checks were not subject to campaign-finance laws, that they were instead gifts from Mellon to take care of a personal matter, namely the hiding of the candidate’s pregnant mistress.

The motive behind the money is likely to be the key to the outcome of a blockbuster courtroom drama that has, so far, veered between tragedy and farce.

Ten days of testimony

During the first 10 days of testimony, there have been many vivid scenes and interesting characters. Prosecutors have offered a seamy glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes of Edwards’ 2008 presidential run, a campaign that derailed at the end of January after a less-than-stellar showing in the Iowa caucuses.

They have also brought forward a parade of campaign staffers who divulged that the former senator’s affair with Rielle Hunter, and even her pregnancy, was not the well-kept secret described by Andrew and Cheri Young, the couple who helped hide Hunter from aggressive tabloid reporters.

The testimony brought tears from the witness stand and an unusual show of emotion from Cate Edwards, John Edwards’ daughter, before a particularly heartbreaking portrayal of her late mother from one witness.

Prosecutors told the judge they could be finished with their side of the case by Thursday, leaving many questions about who else might or might not take the stand.

Mellon, just three months shy of her 102nd birthday, has not testified about her intent in sending the checks along.

There has been much said about Hunter, a New Ager with a fondness for crystals and pricey spiritual advisers, who had an affair and a child with Edwards. But it is not clear whether prosecutors will call her as a witness. Defense attorney Abbe Lowell objected Friday to prosecutors calling any more staffers from the Edwards campaign to testify about their client’s relationship with Hunter.

Staffers have described seeing Hunter dressed in sleepwear emerging from elevators leading to Edwards’ hotel room. They said she referred to Edwards as “John” or “Johnny,” not “Senator,” as they did.

They have recounted scenes in which Elizabeth Edwards clearly was aware by 2007 and in 2008 that her husband was having an extramarital affair. But no one has testified yet that she knew Hunter was pregnant during the campaign.

The past week brought testimony from Mark Kornblau, a former staffer, who surprised prosecutors when he divulged on a question from the defense team that Edwards had refused to sign an affidavit for the National Enquirer in Iowa, near the time of the caucuses, in which he would claim that he had not had an affair with Hunter and the child she was pregnant with could not be his.

“That’s illegal,” defense lawyer Abbe Lowell pointed out, and Edwards, a trial lawyer, knew that, his attorney added.

The finance law in question

Defense lawyers contend that even if payments for a pregnant mistress are covered by campaign-finance law, Edwards was not aware of that.

Andrew and Cheri Young, key witnesses for the prosecution, testified that Edwards was aware of the payments that Mellon provided, but others have testified that Edwards told them he was not aware that Young had asked the Virginia philanthropist for the large sums of money.

Defense attorneys contend that Edwards received none of the money, that the bulk of it went to the Youngs and the construction of their $1.5 million Orange County house on the outskirts of Chapel Hill.

The Youngs testified that they were pulled into a dark scheme by Edwards to hide his pregnant mistress from the National Enquirer crews who broke the news.

Prosecutors contend the scheme was derived to help Edwards keep his presidential bid alive, and because of that, payments from Mellon, and the late Fred Baron, a wealthy Texas lawyer who died in October 2008, should be classified as campaign contributions.

The defense team claims Edwards, a wealthy man who could have used his own money to support a pregnant mistress, was trying to hide his philandering and out-of-wedlock child from his cancer-stricken wife.

Before the weekend break, prosecutors said Friday that two more people linked to Mellon – her librarian and her chief staff person at her property in the horse country of Upperville, Va. – are the next witnesses. They also listed Thomas Lloyd, another wealthy supporter of Edwards; Nick Baldick, a former campaign manager; and Tim Toben, the Chapel Hill builder who helped spirit the Youngs and Hunter out of town in late 2007 under the cloak of pre-dawn darkness from their Orange County property.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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