GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Opening statements are set for today in the trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards, as federal prosecutors try to prove that more than $900,000 paid to Edwards by two wealthy benefactors during his run for the White House should have been reported as campaign contributions because the money flowed to his mistress to preserve Edwards’ image as a “family first” candidate.
Edwards’ defense team is expected to argue that the payments were gifts from wealthy friends and the money was used for expenses unrelated to the 2008 campaign. The fact that Edwards paid his mistress, campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, and helped her through the birth of a child fathered by the candidate, does not mean Edwards had to declare the gifts as campaign contributions, his lawyers say.
Edwards’ lawyers contend that the government’s case requires the jury to accept a novel interpretation of a campaign finance law that “has never been the basis of criminal or even civil liability in the statute’s history.’’ The defense also plans to call two former FEC commissioners to the stand, who are expected to testify that, under the law at the time the money was paid to Edwards, it was not clear that it had to be classified as a campaign contribution.
Campaign finance experts have said that the violations at issue have been previously handled as civil penalties, resulting in fines and payback requirements for the offending candidates.
“This case is significant both legally and politically,’’ said Kenneth Gross, a Washington ethics lawyer. “This is the first criminal case dealing with an excessive gift, particularly a gift not ever going to a campaign, and spent for purposes seemingly unrelated to a campaign.’’
Prosecutors contend that bills paid by two Edwards benefactors, Rachel “Bunny’’ Mellon, a banking heiress from Virginia, and the late Fred Baron, a Texas lawyer, actually were campaign donations because they were intended to protect Edwards’ candidacy, which would have been derailed had the public learned of the affair.
“The charges against John Edwards in this case flow from his knowing and willful violation of the federal campaign finance laws during his campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president,’’ prosecutors said in court filings.
Justice Department prosecutors contend this is a straightforward case of broken campaign finance laws:
“A federal candidate may only accept and receive a limited amount of money from any one individual during an election cycle, and he must truthfully report the money he accepts and receives,’’ the department said in a trial brief.
The former senator from North Carolina has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations. If convicted of all charges, Edwards faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. Opening arguments are scheduled to begin Monday morning and the much-anticipated trial is expected to last at least six weeks.
Critics of the prosecution, while noting that Edwards’ conduct was reprehensible, argue that the government is going too far in trying to tie a candidate’s personal life to complex campaign finance laws.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that generally supports the Justice Department against politicians charged with corruption, took the unusual step of criticizing prosecutors for pursuing the case. The group contends that the payments were gifts, not campaign contributions, noting that the payments continued after Edwards ended his campaign.
The group cited a 2002 Federal Election Commission decision in which six commissioners unanimously agreed that a loan made to a congressman to help defray the costs of his divorce was not a campaign contribution because the donor and the politician “had a preexisting personal relationship.” The same precedent should apply to Edwards, the group said, because the money came from friends.
“Sen. Edwards’ conduct was despicable and deserves society’s condemnation, but that alone does not provide solid grounds for a criminal case,” the group said in a statement last year.
The trial is starting about a year and a half after Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, died of cancer. Edwards carried on the affair with Hunter while his wife was terminally ill.
Edwards’ defense team has suggested that he did not know about the money from Mellon and Baron. “The government assumes that Mr. Edwards knew about the monies; the evidence will prove otherwise,’’ his attorneys said in a court filing.
It’s unclear whether Edwards, who built a lucrative career as a personal injury lawyer, will take the stand. His defense team includes prominent Washington lawyer Abbe D. Lowell.
Edwards in August 2008 admitted to the affair with Hunter after first denying it. At the time, he denied fathering Hunter’s child. Then, in January 2010, he admitted he was the father of Frances Quinn Hunter.
A key witness is expected to be Andrew Young, a former Edwards campaign aide who falsely claimed he was the father of Hunter’s child to protect his boss. Young later wrote a tell-all book, “The Politician.’’
The defense is expected to attack Young, saying in a trial brief that the payments by Mellon and Baron covered Hunter’s personal expenses “and, much more so, the Youngs’ personal expenses, such as construction of their dream home, not Mr. Edwards’ expenses.”
Hunter is expected to be called to the stand. Baron is dead. Mellon, who is 101, is not expected to testify, but her attorney may be called as a witness. The exhibits also include voice mails left by Baron and notes from Mellon to Edwards.
Edwards’ eldest daughter, Cate, is on the defense witness list. The case is before Judge Catherine C. Eagles, who was appointed to the bench by President Obama.
David Meeks contributed from Washington.