GREENSBORO — Two witnesses with a wealth of knowledge about campaign finance laws testified in the John Edwards trial Monday that the $900,000 at the heart of the case went to personal expenses for the candidate – and therefore should not be subject to public reporting or campaign finance caps.
The jury heard from one of the witnesses – a former Edwards campaign treasurer. But the other, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, testified outside the presence of the jury. The judge limited what he can say if he’s called to the stand later in front of jurors.
The Edwards defense team began calling witnesses Monday as the trial entered its fourth week. In comparison to the first three weeks, which featured salacious details about Edwards’ extramarital affair with former campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, the first defense witnesses focused more on campaign finance and policy.
On Tuesday, Cate Edwards, the 30-year-old daughter of the one-time Democratic presidential hopeful, is on the list of possible witnesses. A Harvard law school graduate who’s married now, living in Washington, D.C. and running her late mother’s foundation, Cate Edwards has been in the courtroom for most of the testimony. She occasionally leans in to discuss legal points with her father.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell said at the close of the day Monday that no decision has been made on whether Edwards will take the stand in his defense. Lowell said he will let the judge know Tuesday or Wednesday.
Judge Catherine Eagles dealt the defense a blow Monday when she severely restricted what Scott Thomas, a former Federal Election Commission chairman, could talk about if he faces the jury.
Thomas, who put in 37 years with the government agency that oversees campaign finance compliance and the issues related to it, took the stand Monday after the judge sent the jury home for the day. In a legal proceeding that must take place outside the jury’s presence, Thomas offered a glimpse of what he might say if called to testify.
“These are intensely personal by their very nature,” Thomas said of the $900,000 in payments used to support Hunter when she was pregnant with Edwards’ child, who is now 4.
What money was for
The payments from Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and Fred Baron, two billionaire supporters, did not free up any personal money for Edwards to put toward his campaign. Thomas said. Nor, in the case of Baron, did the payments stop coming after Edwards dropped out of the 2008 presidential campaign.
Prosecutors objected before the trial to the defense team’s plans to classify Thomas as an expert witness who then could offer his opinion for a jury.
Prosecutor David Harbach argued that questions of campaign finance law pertinent to the Edwards case were not so complicated that an expert was necessary.
What the jury will be asked to decide, Harbach argued, was whether the payments were campaign contributions and whether the money used to hide Hunter from the media during Edwards’ 2008 presidential run were campaign expenses.
After Thomas said under oath what he would testify to, the judge reiterated her earlier ruling for the prosecution limiting what he could say before the jury.
“That was interesting,” Eagles said, “because he made a pretty good closing argument for the defense.”
Though the jury did not hear Thomas’ opinion Monday, Lora Haggard, the 2008 campaign treasurer, offered a similar description of the payments while on the stand Monday morning.
The first witness called by the defense, Haggard said she considered the payments from Mellon and Baron to be money that went to personal use.
Campaign contributions could not be used for such a purpose, Haggard said.
No reports changed
Haggard, who initially was on the prosecution’s witness list but was not called to the stand, said that she had not changed any finance reports for the Edwards presidential campaign after reading the indictment and many news accounts on the matter.
Edwards was charged with six counts of campaign finance violations in June 2011. The FEC discussed the Edwards case the following month, Haggard said - a fact the jury was not allowed to hear Monday. After that July 2011 meeting, the commission did not ask Haggard to amend the report for the presidential campaign nor did it conclude that there had been any excessive contributions.
In not allowing Haggard to testify about the FEC meeting, the judge upheld the prosecution’s objection that what she would be reporting was hearsay.
But jurors were in the courtroom Monday when Haggard testified that she had filed a final report in April 2012 and that the FEC had not asked for any amendments since the indictment nor had the commission concluded that there had been any excessive contributions.
Harrison Hickman, a pollster and policy adviser who has worked on about 400 campaigns over the past several decades, took the stand after Haggard and relayed conversations he had with Baron about the payments the billionaire had provided to Hunter and to Andrew and Cheri Young, key witnesses for the prosecution. Andrew Young had originally claimed to be the father of Hunter’s baby, and the Youngs and Hunter had moved around the nation trying to avoid the media.
Fred Baron’s support
Baron, a gregarious trial lawyer from Texas who was known for having an optimistic outlook on life and for being generous with the wealth he had accumulated, was dying of cancer in the fall of 2008.
Hickman testified that he talked with Baron, the campaign’s finance chairman, on numerous occasions during his last months and weeks. Baron discussed the support he had been providing to the Youngs and Hunter.
“He did it personally,” Hickman said. “These were people whose lives were being destructed by the paparazzi.”
Baron, according to testimony, not only paid for private planes, hotel rooms, resorts and rent in pricey homes, he also paid money to one foundation tied to Edwards to continue the salary of Andrew Young through the November election. Baron also wired $300,000 to the builder of the Youngs’ $1.5 million Orange County home in 2008, after Edwards had suspended his campaign.
Baron told Hickman that gift taxes had been paid.
“He told me it was his idea, he wasn’t talking to John about that,” Hickman added.