GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former U.S. Senator John Edwards' defense suggested on Thursday that an aide may have exaggerated a woman's threats to publicize her affair with Edwards, saying she had several opportunities to expose the relationship to tabloid reporters but didn't.
Ex-aide Andrew Young is the federal government's key witness in its campaign finance case against Edwards, a two-time presidential candidate and the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004.
Young has testified that he accepted more than $900,000 from two wealthy donors at Edwards' request and spent it to shield the candidate's pregnant mistress from the public during his failed 2008 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
At the time, Edwards was a married father of three. Young, also married with children, said he agreed to falsely claim paternity of mistress Rielle Hunter's baby to protect his boss' image as a devoted family man as the 2008 presidential nominating season got underway. Young said he spent months on the run with his family and Hunter to keep her away from the media.
Edwards, 58, who served one term as a senator from North Carolina, faces possible prison time if convicted of conspiring to solicit the money from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and campaign finance chairman Fred Baron, receiving more than the $2,300 allowed from any one donor and failing to report the payments as contributions.
The defense says the payments were not campaign contributions meant to influence the election, but instead were gifts from friends trying to help Edwards conceal the affair from his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, which would be a legal use of the money.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell on Thursday pointed out several occasions when Hunter could have exposed her affair with Edwards to inquiring tabloid reporters and didn't.
Lowell also questioned Young's account of when various events occurred and whether the aide had truthfully relayed details to jurors. The attorney pointed out discrepancies in Young's statements over the years about when he learned Hunter was pregnant and how much money Mellon offered to spend to help Edwards.
Lowell showed transcripts of voicemail messages from Edwards to Young from December 2007 and January 2008, the time period leading up to the important Iowa caucuses.
"He does not mention the fact that the Iowa caucuses are coming up in a week," Lowell said. "The concern he expresses is about Elizabeth, isn't it?"
Mellon ultimately wrote seven checks totaling $725,000. Edwards never personally received any of the money, which Mellon sent to her interior decorator, who then forwarded the checks to Young's wife to endorse using her maiden name.
Lowell presented phone records that showed calls between Young's and Mellon's phone numbers often were made in the days prior to the dates on her checks.
"These checks just didn't flow, they were a result of your asking Mrs. Mellon for them on those occasions, isn't that right?" Lowell asked.
"No, sir," said Young, who wrote a tell-all book about Edwards and efforts to keep the affair hidden.
Young said he spoke frequently with Mellon, who told him to contact her whenever there was a need for money to help Edwards. Young said he never told Mellon that the funds were used to pay for Hunter's medical care and living expenses.
The defense also says Young used some of the money to help pay for a $1.5 million home in North Carolina for his family.
Reporting By Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara