By Anne Blythe, McClatchy Newspapers –
GREENSBORO, N.C. — After four days of testimony, it has been difficult at times to tell who is on trial — John Edwards, the former presidential candidate accused of secretly obtaining hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions, or Andrew Young, the political aide that defense lawyers contend used the money to feather a fancy nest of his own.
As the first week of the Edwards trial closes, the man who has been billed as a key witness for the prosecution has been described as a liar, a sycophant and a star struck political groupie who felt spurned by a man he thought would give him and his family a ticket to the palaces of power.
Young, the lead witness for prosecutors in a case that will test the limits of campaign finance law, is expected to be on the stand again Friday for further cross-examination and then any rebuttal questions from the government.
Prosecutor David Harbach told jurors in his opening statement that at the end of the day, they might not like Young.
And for much of Thursday, defense lawyer Abbe Lowell fired question after question at the lead witness, picking apart his testimony with a copy of Young’s 2011 book, “The Politician,” an account of the 2008 campaign, transcripts from various meetings with federal investigators, speeches and interviews, and testimony he provided for a federal grand jury.
Young often responded with, “I don’t know” or “I don’t recall” or “Could you repeat the question?”
Toward the end of the Thursday court session, Young conceded that he sunk much of the money from two wealthy Edwards’ supporters into the walls, stone, roof and luxurious amenities of his $1.5 million Orange County, N.C., house.
Lowell, a high-priced, high-profile lawyer out of Washington, D.C., voiced frustration at lunchtime Thursday when the jury and Young were out of the room. Judge Catherine Eagles cautioned him that she was about to criticize him for taking too much time, delaying the trial. Throughout the morning, he had to hunt for exhibit after exhibit after Young testified that he could not recall sequences of events or words he had spoken.
Young continued that behavior through the afternoon, but Lowell through repeated questioning was able to offer a different account for jurors to consider by the end of the day.
Prosecutors contend Edwards conspired to obtain nearly $1 million from philanthropist Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and wealthy Texas lawyer Fred Baron to hide Edwards’ pregnant mistress from the media during the Democrat’s 2008 presidential run.
Rielle Hunter, a campaign videographer, and Edwards, a married candidate who had fostered a family-man image, had an extramarital affair and a child from that liaison.
Young, who testified in great detail for prosecutors, said the scheme came about after a disgruntled Hunter threatened to go public with the affair in 2007.
But Lowell accused Young of making that up.
Lowell further suggested that Young had been seeking reimbursements for a car, flight, travel and living expenses for Hunter when he already had obtained hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mellon.
At one point, Lowell fired a question at Young, asking him whether he had not submitted a summary of expenses to Baron, trying to suggest to the Texas lawyer that he was in the hole.
“I think that’s fair, yes, sir,” Young said.
Young also acknowledged that while he and his wife, Cheri, were in Santa Barbara, Calif., the last place they went to hide with Hunter, they made numerous change orders on the home they were building just outside Chapel Hill, N.C., adding a swimming pool, a home theater and a guest room over the garage.
“We were living out in Santa Barbara,” Young conceded. “We lost our perspective.”
That afternoon testimony capped a morning in which Lowell pointed out that Young had called Mellon either a day or a couple of days before the checks arrived from the Listerine heiress, bolstering the defense theory that Young was the beneficiary of most of the Mellon and Baron money.
Not a penny went to Edwards, Young said, and as far as he knew, he said, none went to the campaign.
That is the key issue for the jury.
They must decide whether the $900,000 from Baron and Mellon were campaign expenses, and if so, whether Edwards knew about them. Edwards’ lawyers contend that the gifts were personal donations and not covered by campaign-finance law.