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Edwards trial: Former aide says money scheme smelled wrong

April 24, 2012|By Richard Simon and Kim Geiger

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A former aide to John Edwards testified Tuesday about the lengths the former presidential candidate went to to hide his affair with a campaign videographer, including raising money from wealthy benefactors to help support the woman, developing code words to conceal his communication with her and crafting an elaborate payment scheme to route money to her.

In his second day of testimony, Andrew Young said he felt uneasy about payment arrangements in which Young’s wife deposited checks under her maiden name before passing the money to Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter.

“We felt the smell was wrong,” Young said. “But in the end, we decided [Edwards] knew more about the law than we did.”

Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, is accused of accepting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions during his 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Prosecutors say the money was meant to protect Edwards’ image as a family-first candidate; the defense says the money was a personal gift unrelated to Edwards’ political ambitions.

Young, the prosecution’s key witness, is the author of the tell-all book “The Politician.” His testimony is considered crucial to the prosecution’s case, which hinges on proving that the contributions were made and accepted for the purpose of furthering Edwards’ presidential campaign.

Young’s testimony focused on payments made by Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, an elderly banking heiress from Virginia, who, according to Young, routed money to Edwards by writing checks to Mellon’s interior designer. The interior designer then endorsed the checks over to Young’s wife, Cheri.

“As Bunny says, ‘To the rescue of America,’” reads an undated letter from the interior designer to Young, which the prosecution presented as evidence that the contributions were meant to further Edwards’ political career.

Describing how the payment scheme began, Young told the courtroom that Mellon initially offered to help pay Edwards’ haircut bills after news of his $400 cuts threatened to tarnish his image as a man of the people. Mellon sent a note saying she wanted to “help our friend without government restrictions,” Young said.

Young said Edwards told him that he had consulted campaign finance lawyers and that it was “completely legal” for him to accept the financial help. Still, Edwards felt that he “couldn’t know anything about this in case he got sworn in as attorney general,” Young said.

Young said Edwards told him to tell Mellon that the money would be used for a “non-campaign expense, something that would benefit him.”

Young recalled receiving a $100,000 check from Mellon with “for a table” written in the memo note. Young said he expressed concern to Edwards about depositing the check because the idea of a $100,000 table might draw attention. He said Edwards told him not to worry, that a table could cost that much.

Edwards’ relationship with Hunter was a secret to the public during the time of his presidential campaign, but it was known by Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, Young said.

Young testified that Elizabeth Edwards had started checking phone records to monitor her husband’s communications with Hunter, so Young and Edwards had a separate phone they referred to as the “bat phone,” which Edwards used to contact Hunter.

Hunter also was paid a monthly allowance, typically $5,000, at Edwards’ direction, Young said.

Hunter eventually gave birth to a child fathered by Edwards, though he denied paternity until 2010.

Young, who acted as a liaison between Edwards and Hunter, recalled becoming frustrated by Hunter’s frequent phone calls. One night in 2007, Young received a call from a distraught Hunter.

“I said, ‘Someone had better be pregnant or dying,’” Young recalled saying when he answered.

“No one is dying,” Hunter said.

Young said he called Edwards, who was angry and urged him to calm Hunter down. Edwards told Young there was a 1-in-3 chance he was the father of the child.

Geiger reported from Washington.

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