John Edwards Trial: Witness Says Money Earmarked to Hide Mistress Was 'For His Benefit'

The government wrapped up the 2nd week of its case-in-chief with a bombshell.

May 5, 2012, 12:30 PM

May 6, 2012— -- The government wrapped up the second week of its case-in-chief with something of a bombshell/cliffhanger combination for jurors to ponder over the weekend, when a witness revealed that John Edwards had acknowledged that the money earmarked to hide his mistress was "for his benefit."

After a day of colorful testimony from interior designer Bryan Huffman focusing on the "Bunny Money" that contributed to the cover-up of Edwards' affair, Bunny Mellon's attorney Alexander Forger, a stately New Yorker with a booming baritone voice, was called to the stand.

Forger described his efforts in 2008 to unravel the mystery of the secret payments -- totaling $725,000 -- that Mellon funneled through Huffman to Edwards aide Andrew Young. The checks were disguised as payments for furniture.

"Our furniture business did not involve furniture," Huffman had testified. "It was money for Senator Edwards."

Forger said that in late 2008 he spoke to Edwards about the payments, by then having traced the checks to an account controlled by Young.

Edwards denied knowing about the money and told Forger that he was sorry Young had bilked Mellon and thought Young ought to pay her back.

But Forger said that in a subsequent conversation with Wade Smith, Edwards' attorney at that time, the lawyer told him: "John has said, yes. He acknowledges now that this was for his benefit."

As a hush fell over the courtroom, prosecutor Robert Higdon suggested it would be a good time to stop for the day, denying Edwards' attorneys the chance to jump into cross examination. That was the last thing the jury heard before the weekend break.

It was not clear from Forger's testimony when Edwards learned about Mellon's money.

Edwards is charged with violating campaign finance laws by using nearly $1 million from wealthy donors to hide his pregnant girlfriend, Rielle Hunter. He could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Forger is due back on the stand Monday for more testimony that could perhaps explain what "for his benefit" means.

Later Monday, Nick Baldick, another crucial witness, is expected to be called by the government. A well-known Democratic political operative, Baldick ran Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign and was helping to raise soft money in 2006-07 for Edwards' second bid for the White House.

The jury has been hearing Baldick's name often during testimony thus far.

Young earlier testified that after he became the full-time caretaker of Hunter in late 2007, Edwards directed Baldick to put Young on the payroll of one of Baldick's political consulting firms, provide him health insurance and pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions for fundraising Young had done earlier that year.

If Baldick backs that story up it could be very damaging to Edwards' defense arguments that Young had gone rogue. If he doesn't, it will be just one more reason for the jury to doubt Young.

Baldick may also be asked about his efforts to resist Hunter's hiring as a videographer for an Edwards' PAC in 2006.

Other government witnesses expected Monday include two employees at Bunny Mellon's estate, one of her grandsons, and Tim Toben, a former Edwards' supporter who drove the Youngs and Hunter to the airport the night they were whisked out of North Carolona.

Toben may be asked about his discussions with Edwards about a poverty foundation that Edwards wanted to set up with Mellon after he dropped out of the race.

Prosecutors told Judge Catherine Eagles they think they could be prepared to rest their case by Thursday.

Some important government witnesses still to come include Wendy Button, a former Edwards' speechwriter who is expected to testify that Edwards told her in 2009 that he had known about at least some of the money from the start but that he didn't believe it was illegal.

Button had been working with Edwards on a statement that he was considering making in the summer of 2009, after it was reported that Young was writing a book.

That statement was never issued. Edwards finally acknowledged paternity of Hunter's child in January 2010, just a few days before the publication of Young's book.

The defense has been signaling throughout the trial that it will be coming at Button forcefully, portraying her as vengeful and obsessed with the investigation into Edwards affair.

Jennifer Palmieri, who was commutations director for Edwards in the '04 race and remained a close adviser to both John and Elizabeth Edwards, could be called later in the week. She is now on the communications staff of the Obama administration.

Palmieri could shed more light on what Elizabeth Edwards knew about the affair and pregnancy and when she knew it. Palmieri was among the Edwards' advisers who helped arrange John Edwards' Nightline interview with Bob Woodruff in August of 2008 - during which Edwards admitted to a short affair with Hunter but denied paternity and disavowed any knowledge of alleged hush money payments by Fred Baron.

Prosecutors may also quiz Palmieri about an argument she allegedly witnessed in 2007, in which Elizabeth Edwards was fuming at Fred and Lisa Baron over their friendship with Hunter.

John Edwards was present for this conversation, according to a pre-trial motion filed by the government.

Also expected on the prosecution's list is Wade Smith, the dean of the North Carolina bar who at one time was defending Edwards, but withdrew when it became clear the government was going to call him to testify about his conversation with Forger.

As for Hunter, it seems possible the prosecution may not call her at all, even though she is on their witness list. The government may be concerned that Hunter will distract the jury from their case and could do further damage to the credibility of their beleaguered star witness, Andrew Young. And they may be figuring that they'd be better off dealing with her in cross examination rather than direct.

In anticipation of Hunter's testimony and that of Edwards' daughter Cate, Eagles has created an overflow room for spectators and reporters.

The cramped first floor courtroom will surely be too small to handle the crush of media and curiosity seekers.

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