(Note: Graphic language in final paragraph)
By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former Senator John Edwards acknowledged that secret payments provided by an heiress during his 2008 presidential bid were “for his benefit,” an attorney testified on Friday as the second week of Edwards’ campaign-finance trial drew to a close.
But the wealthy supporter’s attorney, Alex Forger, did not distinguish as to whether Edwards believed the benefit to be political, or personal - a key issue in the federal case against the two-time White House hopeful who served as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee in 2004.
Edwards, 58, is accused of soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and wealthy Texas lawyer Fred Baron to help conceal his affair with a videographer as he sought the presidency in 2008.
The government says Edwards, at the time married with three children, knew revelations about his pregnant mistress would ruin his image and doom his campaign.
The defense argues that the donors’ payments were intended to hide Edwards’ mistress, Rielle Hunter, from his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, and not to influence the election.
Mellon, now 101, is physically unable to attend the trial in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state where Edwards earned his wealth as a trial lawyer before serving one term in the U.S. Senate.
But her close friend, interior decorator Bryan Huffman, testified that Mellon didn’t know that some of the $725,000 she provided to help Edwards with an unspecified expense went toward Hunter’s living costs and medical care.
Mellon badly wanted to see Edwards elected president, Huffman said. She wrote the checks in Huffman’s name, and he forwarded the money to Edwards’ aide Andrew Young and his wife, who deposited the checks into their personal accounts.
Huffman said Edwards was not involved in deciding that arrangement.
The defense says Andrew Young, who has immunity, arranged the financial scheme and used much of the money for his own benefit.
Huffman said Mellon wasn’t particularly upset when she later learned the truth about Edwards’ affair and how some of her money had been spent. However, “she thought that maybe you should pay for your girlfriend yourself,” he said.
Forger, Mellon’s attorney, said he initially became aware of payments she was making in Huffman’s name under the guise of buying furniture in late 2007. By then, Mellon had given the maximum individual contributions allowed to Edwards’ campaign.
The maximum donation allowed per donor in 2008 was $2,300 for each of the primary and general elections.
Forger said he told Mellon any additional money had to be a personal gift to Edwards, not a campaign contribution. “And she understood that,” he said.
Forger said he later asked Huffman about the purported “furniture checks.” The interior decorator told him that Young had requested the money from Mellon, saying “the senator had a special need not related to the campaign,” according to Forger.
Mellon’s attorney turned to Baron, who served as Edwards’ national campaign finance chairman, to try and learn more about where the money ended up.
Baron, who has since died, said he had paid for Hunter’s expenses and knew nothing about the Mellon money, Forger said.
“This sounded like a scam perpetrated by Mr. Young,” Baron said, according to Forger’s testimony.
Some of the charges Edwards faces stem from the more than $180,000 Baron spent on private flights and posh accommodations for Hunter and the Youngs, who traveled around the country to escape the media during the campaign.
Young says he falsely claimed paternity of Edwards’ child with Hunter at the candidate’s request as part of the cover-up.
Forger said he heard from Edwards soon after the Baron phone call. By then, the campaign was over. Edwards said he was not aware of the checks from Mellon and that Andrew Young should pay her back, Forger said.
In late 2008, several years before charges were filed against Edwards, an attorney who was then representing him said the former senator acknowledged “that this was for his benefit” in reference to Mellon’s payments, Forger said.
The defense will get a chance to question Forger when the trial resumes on Monday.
Earlier on Friday, a political adviser testified he was told to butt out when he warned Edwards that pursuing the affair with Hunter would sink his presidential ambitions.
Peter Scher, who first worked with Edwards when he was the vice presidential nominee, said the politician denied having a sexual relationship with Hunter when Scher broached the subject in September 2006.
At the time, Edwards had not yet declared his candidacy for the 2008 race.
“I told him if it was true that he was having an affair with Ms. Hunter, he should not run for president,” Scher said. “If it was true, eventually it would come out and it would destroy his political career.”
Scher said he again confronted Edwards about the dalliance in a heated phone call after learning Hunter was still traveling with Edwards despite staff concerns. This time, Edwards responded that he didn’t need a babysitter and told Scher to back off, the former adviser recalled.
“He told me to go fuck myself,” said Scher, who stopped serving as an outside adviser to Edwards at that point.
Editing by Paul Thomasch, Xavier Briand and David Brunnstrom