INSIDER BLOG: Prosecution Seeks to Prove John Edwards Knew About "Bunny Money"
By Jonathan Serrie
A former speechwriter for John Edwards is expected to take the stand in her former boss's corruption trial.
Wendy Button helped Edwards draft a public statement in 2009, in which the former presidential candidate admitted to having an extramarital affair and fathering a child with his mistress.
Prosecutors are likely to ask her what knowledge Edwards had at the time about nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors to keep his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, in hiding during the 2008 campaign.
Edwards denies he
knew about the money, which his defense team describes as "private gifts." However, the prosecution argues the money represents undisclosed campaign contributions, well in excess of the individual donor cap of $2,300 per election.
The prosecution is attempting to call the credibility of Edwards' denials into question. Yesterday, a witness suggested that Edwards contradicted himself when he claimed he was unaware of efforts to procure $50 million from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon for a foundation to advocate for the poor.
Tim Toben, a neighbor of former Edwards aide Andrew Young, recalled a June 2008 dinner conversation in which Edwards "said he had a friend, Mrs. Mellon, who had great wealth. It would be a chip shot for her to endow that foundation with $50 million."
But Toben said at a later meeting in July 2009, Edwards told him that Young could not be trusted and that, "Andrew had tried to bilk Mrs. mellon out of $50 million."
Toben added, "I don't think he had remembered, but a year earlier he said it would be easy to have Mrs. Mellon endow his foundation. And $50 million was the exact number."
Toben said he initially supported Edwards' 2008 bid for president, but switched his support to eventual winner Barack Obama after learning of Edwards' pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter. While his neighbor Young was keeping Hunter in hiding and claiming he was the father of her child, Toben said he received several unusual requests.
He said at one point, Young called him from Santa Barbara, California and put Hunter on the line. According to Toben, Hunter asked him to retrieve some items from her Chapel Hill home and mail them to her. The items included a poster-sized photo of Edwards as a boy, with "Love, John" inscribed at the bottom and another picture.
"It was a photograph of Mr. Edwards and Ms. Hunter and it said, 'I love you," Toben recalled.
Toben returns to the witness stand this morning and is expected to face cross-examination by the defense.
According to testimony from another witness Monday, Edwards approached his loyal supporter, Mellon, for an additional $3 million last year -- just weeks before his indictment on campaign finance violations.
However, jurors won't hear this testimony, based on a successful objection by the defense, which argued this request in 2011 had no bearing on funds obtained from Mellon during the 2008 election cycle.
Without the jury present, the librarian at Mellon's Oak Spring Farms described a 2011 phone call in which Edwards' made the request of his long-time supporter.
"The senator had talked to her about some additional money to help get him established and moving on," said Tony Willis. "She said that she couldn't. And then when she came to the library, she said, 'I really need to write a letter.'"
Willis helped Mellon draft a letter to Edwards. But it was never sent, on advice from her lawyers. The prosecution attempted to enter the unsent letter into evidence because it apparently describes giving Edwards money for political purposes. However, the defense objected.
"This alleged conspiracy was in 2011," said defense lawyer Allen Duncan. "It has no relevance to issues before this jury."
After 15 minutes of back and forth between the defense and prosecution, the judge sustained Duncan's objection. So, the jury will not hear about Edward's 2011 request for funds.
Mellon's estate lawyer, Alex Forger, offered insight into the motivations behind Mellon's support for Edwards.
"She in her later years had very few close friends," Forger testified. "She took a liking to Mr. Edwards. She liked him as an individual, as a person."
According to Forger, Mellon did not consider the money she gave as campaign contributions, but private gifts to a dear friend.
"She wasn't interested in being named secretary of state or ambassador. It was the person that interested her," he said.
The court also heard testimony from Nick Baldick, Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign manager, who later lead the candidate's poverty advocacy group.
Baldick recalled a conversation in mid-2008 with billionaire lawyer and Edwards supporter Fred Baron.
"He talked about how Andrew had stupidly taken one for the team," Baldick said, referring to Young's cross-country travels to hide Hunter from the media.
During cross-examination, the defense asked Baldick about the prosecution's key witness.
"Are there things you have seen Mr. Young say or write that have been inaccurate?" asked lead defense lawyer Abbe Lowell.
Baldick replied, "Well, he claimed paternity."