By Richard Simon, Los Angeles Times –
GREENSBORO, N.C. — After days of salacious testimony about a mistress, a love child and naked political ambition, John Edwards’ criminal campaign finance trial focused Wednesday on the credibility of the prosecution’s chief witness.
In the first of what is expected to be several days of cross-examination, the defense sought to portray former Edwards aide Andrew Young as an opportunist who profited from the rise and fall of the aspiring presidential candidate.
As he questioned Young, defense attorney Abbe Lowell held up a copy of Young’s tell-all book about Edwards, “The Politician,” and highlighted inconsistencies between Young’s testimony and the book, as well as his TV appearances to promote the book.
Edwards, a former trial lawyer and 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. The money was used to pay the expenses of his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and hide the affair that, if revealed, would have destroyed his image as a devoted family man and ruined his political aspirations.
Edwards contends the payments from two wealthy benefactors, Virginia banking heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, were not political donations but gifts intended to spare him and his family embarrassment. Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, had been diagnosed with breast cancer that had recurred in early 2007. She died about a year and a half ago.
Young testified Wednesday that while he and his wife, Cheri, were in hiding with Hunter, Baron — who was Edwards’ national finance chairman — said the Youngs had the “most important job on the campaign.”
But Lowell noted that Young had written in his book that the donations provided by Baron and Mellon, now 101, were “gifts, entirely proper, and not subject to campaign finance laws.”
“I did this to cover my butt,” Young responded. He is testifying under a grant of immunity.
Lowell tried to portray Young as motivated by money and hatred of Edwards.
When Lowell asked Young whether he viewed Edwards as his “ticket to the top,” the former aide said he believed working for a future president “could lead to great things.”
In testifying about his deteriorating relationship with Edwards, Young cited a June 2008 meeting in a Washington, D.C., hotel room. He said the two men yelled at each other and nearly came to blows.
When Hunter, a campaign videographer, became pregnant in 2007, Young falsely claimed to be the father of her daughter, who was born in February 2008. He and his wife spent months on the run with Hunter, funded by the donations from Baron and Mellon.
But when he had trouble getting Edwards to return his calls, Young said, he grew worried that the politician would leave him alone to struggle to support his family in the face of scandal.
“We had a very angry exchange,” Young said. Tensions eased, he said, when Edwards “told me he loved me and he knew that I knew that he would never abandon me.”
Edwards and Young last met in August 2008, he testified, after Edwards publicly acknowledged having an affair with Hunter but denied fathering her child.
In that meeting, which took place on a country road near Edwards’ North Carolina home, Young said he pressured Edwards to publicly admit paternity and threatened to go public if he refused.
Young testified that Edwards told him, “You can’t hurt me, Andrew, you can’t hurt me.”
He and Edwards have not spoken since, Young said.
Edwards did not admit fathering Frances Quinn Hunter until January 2010 — more than a year later.
As Young responded to the prosecutor’s questions on the morning of the trial’s third day, Edwards often whispered to his attorney. Young did not seem to look toward Edwards. His cross-examination began in the afternoon and will continue Thursday.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations. If convicted on all of them, he could face up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.