Questions for key witness at the John Edwards trial

If a man is running for president, and accepts contributions from long-time friends, does that automatically make them donations to his political campaign? this really should be the issue at the heart of the trial of former presidential contender John Edwards, who is accused of six counts of breaching campaign finance laws, charges which could land him thirty years in jail if he is convicted.

But in a case which has got it all – political intrigue, betrayal, sex, and money – a parade of Washington A-listers is lined up to testify. this is about as Hollywood as inside the Beltway will get. the man described as the key witness for the prosecution, long-time Edwards aide Andrew Young, is back on the stand today, where he has been talking more about the allegations. “It all just seemed crazy,” he told the court. “It felt and smelled wrong”.

John Edwards is not afraid of the truth. He welcomes it. Allison Van Laningham, defence attorney

If you have missed the substance of the charges, here is a recap: Edwards is alleged to have masterminded a scheme to divert almost a million dollars donated to his 2008 presidential campaign by two wealthy supporters, to fund luxury accommodation and other expenses for his mistress, Rielle Hunter. She is the mistress who worked as a video blogger for his campaign, who he denied having an affair with.

And she is the mistress he fathered a child with in 2008. which he also lied about. oh, and the mistress he was carrying on with while his likeable and popular wife Elizabeth was dying from terminal cancer. but none of this is a criminal offence, as the defence has pointed out, and none of it should influence the jury in this trial.

The trouble for the prosecution is that Young, who is giving evidence in exchange for immunity, is clearly no angel himself. the defence claim that he and his wife siphoned off much of the secret cash to help build a luxury home for himself and his wife. He is also a proven liar, after pretending that Hunter’s daughter was his own child, to protect his then boss. and after turning against Edwards, he produced a rather nasty tell-all book, which he has already admitted contains stuff that is not true.

Witness issues

Late on Monday, judge Catherine Eagles revealed that Young had contacted three people on the list of defence witnesses, one of whom was a colleague who he allegedly had a one-night stand with in 2007. you can tell things are getting difficult for the defence team when they have to make it clear in court that their star witnesses’s “hands aren’t exactly clean”, and warn the jury that they “will not like” him.

The other hurdle for the defence is proving that the donations were undeniably linked to Edwards’ presidential campaign, rather than, as he argues, personal donations intended to help him out of his little extra-marital affair problem. the trouble is, the donors themselves will not be testifying in person. One, Texas lawyer Fred Baron, has passed away. the other, banking heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon (you really could not make this stuff up) is now 101 and too frail to travel.

Ludicrous, absurd and stupid come immediately to mind. dangerous, even. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

Both Baron and Mellon were friends with Edwards way back when: while the money itself changed hands between 2007 and 2009, covering the period after Edwards ended his campaign for the White House. Already, a group which you might think would be tough as hell on campaign finance violations, the DC based Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has criticised the basis for the trial.

They admit what Edwards did to his wife was despicable, reprehensible, loathsome. but, they state: “The idea that payments made by two longtime friends of mr Edwards to his mistress are “campaign contributions” deserves a few adjectives of its own: ludicrous, absurd and stupid come immediately to mind. dangerous, even.” the cash, they argue, was clearly a gift.

In this vein, they are echoed by an unlikely political bedfellow, the highly conservative National Review. Paying hush money to your mistress, they argue, is not a federal crime, arguing that trying to “prosecute a loathsome man for his loathsomness” is an “offense against the rule of law”, not to mention a dangerous precedent.

Latest evidence

Andrew Young, in his latest evidence, claimed he and Edwards decided to ask Mellon for the money to support Hunter, saying he had described it as a “non-campaign expense that would benefit mr Edwards”. He insisted the two men had discussed the payments, and whether they were legitimate for a presidential campaign. “He said it was completely legal”, Young said.

It is not clear whether Edwards, who made a fortune out of a lucrative career as a trial lawyer, will take the stand: his Harvard Law graduate daughter Cate is on the defence list, while everyone is waiting to hear from the scorned mistress herself, Rielle Hunter. “John Edwards is a man who has committed many sins, but no crimes.”, his doughty defence attorney Allison Van Laningham has declared. “John Edwards is not afraid of the truth. He welcomes it”.

Now it is up to the 12 people who end up on the jury, to work out exactly which truth they believe. John Edwards might be one of the most reviled men in Washington, which is no mean feat. but that, as the judge in that Greensboro courtoom has cautioned, is not a federal crime.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News

Questions for key witness at the John Edwards trial


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