Trial begins in John Edwards campaign finance case

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Andrew Young was once much more than an aide to John Edwards.

The linchpin of the government’s criminal case against the ex-presidential candidate spent long hours driving to and from political events with the rising Democratic star. They attended college basketball games together to root for the Tar Heels and buddied around at Edwards’ beach house. Young was even tasked with buying Christmas presents for the Edwards children.

“We were just North Carolina boys and had a lot in common,” Young testified Monday. The men were so close that when Edwards got his mistress pregnant in 2007, the married Young publicly claimed paternity of his boss’ unborn child.

The former aide was the first witness called by federal prosecutors Monday following opening statements in Edwards’ criminal trial, which is being held in Greensboro, N.C. Prosecutors allege that Edwards masterminded a conspiracy to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy donors to help hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.

Edwards, 58, has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to alleged violations of federal campaign finance laws stemming from accepting money in excess of the $2,300 legal limit for individual contributions. Federal law defines campaign contributions as money given to influence the outcome of a U.S. election.

“It wasn’t just a marriage on the line,” prosecutor David Harbach said in his opening statement. “If the affair went public it would destroy his chance of becoming president, and he knew it. …He made a choice to brea the law.”

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles seated 12 jurors and four alternates Monday morning. The panel is made up of nine men and seven women drawn from central North Carolina. Edwards represented the state for one term in the U.S. Senate.

Edwards stared intently at Young as his former confidant testified. In nearly two hours of talking about Edwards, Young never looked in his direction.

For Edwards and his defense team, destroying Young’s credibility is key to their strategy of keeping the former presidential contender out of prison.They allege that much of the money at issue in the case was siphoned off by Young and his wife to pay for a $1.5 million house finished in 2008.

“Follow the money,” defense lawyer Allison Van Laningham urged jurors in her opening statement. “John Edwards did not get any of this money. Not one cent.”

Edwards’ lawyers contend the payments were gifts from friends intent on keeping the candidate’s wife from finding out about the affair. Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010 after battling cancer.

A key issue will be whether Edwards knew about the payments made on his behalf by his national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, a now-101-year-old heiress and socialite. Each had already given Edwards’ campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution.

Edwards denies having known about the money, which paid for private jets, luxury hotels and then-mistress Rielle Hunter’s medical care. Prosecutors will seek to prove he sought and directed the payments to cover up his affair, protect his public image as a “family man” and keep his presidential hopes viable.

On the witness stand Monday, Young recounted how he met Edwards in 1998, as the Raleigh trial lawyer and political neophyte was campaigning for the Senate. “My father was a minister, so I had seen a lot of great speakers,’ Young recounted. “He was really ‘on’ that day.”

Young said he immediately told his future wife, Cheri Young, that Edwards had the potential to become president and that he wanted to work for him. Young quickly rose from a junior campaign staffer to working on the senator’s North Carolina staff following the election.

When no one else wanted to pick up Edwards at the airport, Young leapt at the opportunity. He eventually became special assistant to the senator, a gatekeeper of who got phone calls and face time with Edwards.

Young also testified about first meeting Hunter as she travelled with Edwards in 2006. That same year, Young first spoke with Mellon and put her in touch with Edwards. The Youngs later invited the pregnant Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and embarked with her on a cross-country odyssey as they sought to elude tabloid reporters trying to expose the candidate’s extramarital affair.

Edwards and Young eventually had a falling out and the former aide wrote an unflattering tell-all book, “The Politician.” Young and Hunter recently ended a two-year legal battle over ownership of a sex tape the mistress recorded with Edwards during the campaign, agreeing to a settlement that dictates that copies of the video will be destroyed.

Two of the lawyers who represented Hunter in her civil suit against the former aide joined Edwards’ legal team last month. After years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged paternity of Hunter’s daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, in 2010. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.

It has not yet been decided whether Edwards, a former trial lawyer once renowned for his ability to charm jurors, will testify in his own defense.

Before the jury entered the courtroom Monday, Eagles disclosed that Young had called three other witnesses in the last two weeks. Eagles ruled that lawyers for Edwards could mention the improper contact to jurors in opening statements Monday, but barred them from using the term “witness tampering” or telling the jury that Young had a one-night stand with one of the other witnesses in 2007.

Eagles, who was appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama, said she expects the proceedings to last about six weeks.

After years of seeking the limelight, Edwards gave no statement and looked away from the cameras as he walked in and out of the courthouse, accompanied by his eldest daughter, lawyer Cate Edwards, and his elderly parents. Edwards is now a single parent of two children, ages 13 and 11, who live with their father at the family’s gated estate outside Chapel Hill.

His lawyer, Van Laningham, said Edwards’ public fall from grace has humbled the former politician. He lied to everyone, she said, his wife, his staff and the American people. “John Edwards is a man who committed many sins,” she told the jury, “but no crimes.”

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