GREENSBORO, N.C. - A former speechwriter for John Edwards testified Tuesday that the onetime presidential candidate acknowledged knowing that a wealthy donor was secretly supporting his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
Wendy Button testified at Edwards' corruption trial, which has renewed national attention to a scandal that brought down the Democratic Party golden boy and brought forth details of the efforts to keep his affair secret from the public and his cancer-stricken wife.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts alleging campaign finance violations. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. A key issue is how much Edwards knew about roughly $1 million in secret payments from Baron and another wealthy donor, the 101-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon. He has denied knowing about the payments.
Button said she helped Edwards in the summer of 2009 to draft a public statement admitting he had repeatedly lied about fathering a baby girl with his mistress, Rielle Hunter.
Button said Edwards told her that he knew his campaign finance chairman, Fred Baron, had been financially supporting Hunter and the baby.
"He said he knew that Fred had been taking care of things all along, but that he didn't know the details," Button said.
That admission was absent from the statement Edwards eventually released in January 2010 saying that he was the father of the baby, Frances Quinn Hunter. Button said Edwards told her to remove the sentence about his knowledge of the money flowing to his mistress, citing "legal and practical reasons." At the time, it was well known that federal prosecutors were investigating the money used to cover up Edwards' affair.
Button said Edwards told her in 2009 he had only recently learned about the $725,000 in checks Mellon provided to a fundraiser for Edwards.
That staff member, Andrew Young, then spent some of the money to rent a house for Edwards' mistress, buy her a BMW and pay medical bills. But financial records made public during the trial also show Young and his wife kept most of the money, which they spent building their family's dream home.
Button said Edwards told her in 2009 that Young had "extorted" the money from Mellon without his knowledge. Edwards told her he did not think he would be charged with any crime because of what his aide had done. Edwards told her the money was legal because the donors had paid gift taxes and he couldn't be charged with accepting a bribe because he was no longer an elected official when he campaigned for president, she said. Edwards served one term in the U.S. Senate that had expired in January of 2005.
Button said Edwards expressed regret for allowing Young to falsely claim paternity of Hunter's baby in December 2007. A tabloid had published a story exposing the affair and the resulting pregnancy weeks before the crucial Iowa caucuses, which Edwards hoped to win.
"He said it was wrong to deny her and let someone else claim to be her father," she testified. Edwards also told the speechwriter he still loved Hunter, but their relationship was then "complicated."
Button said she and Edwards went through numerous drafts of the planned statement over a three month span. After Edwards told her he knew about Baron's support for his mistress, she added a line to the draft statement.
"While I never asked Fred Baron for a dime, I stood by while he supported my daughter," Button said, reading the draft of Edwards' statement from the witness stand.
After conferring with others, Button said Edwards spoke with her about the sentence.
"He said for legal and practical reasons to take it out," Button said.
Edwards then suggested a replacement.
"Some people without my knowledge supported Quinn," Button said, reading the revised draft.
She said she objected to the change, which she said was a lie.
"This statement was supposed to be about the truth," Button said Tuesday. "I knew it wasn't true."
Button said Edwards had intended to release the statement in August 2009, a year after he had gone on national television to admit having an affair with Hunter but again lie about fathering her baby. But Edwards' wife, Elizabeth Edwards, didn't want him to issue any statement accepting responsibility for the child, Button said.
Edwards eventually released a short statement admitting paternity in January 2010, but he omitted any mention of the donors' money used in the cover up.
Button, who was subpoenaed to testify by prosecutors, will retake the witness stand Wednesday to be cross examined by an Edwards lawyer.
Earlier on Tuesday, a onetime policy adviser to Edwards testified he warned Barack Obama's presidential campaign staff in 2008 to look closely at rumours about Edwards' infidelity before offering him any position in the Democratic administration.
Chapel Hill developer Tim Toben said he was astonished when Edwards told him he still had lofty political aspirations over dinner in June of 2008. At the time, Edwards' presidential bid had unraveled but he was still frequently mentioned in media speculation over who might become Obama's running mate or fill his Cabinet.
Toben, however, had firsthand knowledge of Edwards' affair.
"I was alarmed," said Toben, a Democratic donor. "I couldn't believe a man with a 4-month-old baby with another woman would seriously consider running for vice-president."
During their meal at an upscale Chapel Hill restaurant, Edwards told Toben that he was still popular enough to be a nominee for vice-president or for an administration post such as attorney general, Toben said. Toben said he found it "astonishing" that Edwards believed he could still merit such a position. Tabloid reports about the affair had already surfaced at that point.
After the dinner, Toben said he contacted a friend who was North Carolina director of Obama's campaign, and told him that he believed the tabloid reports were true. He advised him that they should take a hard look at Edwards before offering him anything.
Edwards appeared to have some political life left at the time. Before Edwards publicly admitted to the affair in August of 2008, observers had wondered if he would earn a spot in the administration should Obama win — speculation that was reported in the national media. He had been expected to speak at the Democratic National Convention that year, but was left off the schedule after the affair was confirmed.
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