TOPICS > Politics

John Edwards Trial Expected to Set Precedents for Campaign-Finance Law

April 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Former Sen. John Edwards arrived Monday at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., as the trial began over whether the former vice presidential candidate violated campaign-finance laws. Margaret Warner discusses the case with The Associated Press' Michael Biesecker, who was inside the courtroom for opening statements.
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RAY SUAREZ: Opening statements began today in the John Edwards trial looking at whether the former senator, vice presidential candidate, and one-time presidential hopeful violated campaign finance laws.

Margaret Warner begins with some background.

QUESTION: Senator, how are you feeling?

JOHN EDWARDS (D), former U.S. senator: Good morning. Good morning.

MARGARET WARNER: John Edwards arrived at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., for his felony trial accompanied by his oldest daughter, Cate. His prosecution on campaign finance violations marks a long fall from grace for Edwards, the son of millworkers who became a famed trial attorney and got elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998.

Six years later, after seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, he became John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate. The ticket lost and, within days, Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth Edwards, disclosed she had breast cancer. But it seemed to go into remission and her husband announced his second presidential bid in December 2006.

JOHN EDWARDS: This campaign will be a grassroots, ground-up campaign where we ask people to take action.

MARGARET WARNER: This time, the former senator fared poorly in the early contests and quit the race in January 2008. But by then, The National Enquirer was reporting he’d had an affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer hired to document his campaign. Hunter gave birth to a baby girl in February 2008.

And after repeated denials, Edwards admitted in January 2010 to being the child’s father. He and his wife ultimately separated, and Elizabeth Edwards died of cancer in December 2010.

But news of the affair prompted an investigation, and in June of last year, John Edwards was indicted on six counts of violating federal campaign finance laws. Prosecutors say he received $900,000 from two wealthy benefactors, and used it to keep his pregnant mistress in hiding and the affair a secret. The money was never reported.

Edwards has denied any wrongdoing, saying the funds were personal gifts, not campaign contributions.

JOHN EDWARDS: I didn’t violate campaign laws. And I never for a second believed I was violating campaign laws.

MARGARET WARNER: If convicted on all counts, Edwards could face 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine.

And Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press was inside the courtroom today and he joins us now from Greensboro.

Michael, welcome.

First of all, give us a flavor of what it was like in the courtroom today? Paint a picture for us.

MICHAEL BIESECKER, Associated Press: Well, there was a line to get in. It’s the first time that has ever happened with me at a trial. There was more people trying to get into the courtroom than seating. A lot of the people who came were just folks interested in seeing what would happen with Edwards and lawyers interested in seeing a former trial lawyer on trial.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what the — the prosecutor, the lead prosecutor gave an opening statement. What did he say that, one, outlined his theory of their case, and, two, why what Edwards did was a crime?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, key to the government’s case is proving that Edwards not only knew about the money, but he directed essentially a cover-up to keep the public from finding out about his affair, not motivated by hiding the affair from his wife, but to influence the outcome of an election.

Under federal campaign finance law, essentially a donation under the government’s theory is any money given to influence the outcome of an election. And they say that is certainly what Edwards was trying to do. Edwards’ lawyer contend he was just trying to hide the affair from his wife and avoid humiliation.

MARGARET WARNER: What kind of evidence did — I mean, neither of them introduced actual evidence, but what kind of examples did either cite to support their theories?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, the defense is saying that most of the $900,000 — more than $900,000 that’s at issue in the trial, the bulk of that, about $750,000, came from heiress Bunny Mellon, who’s now 101 years old.

They say Young took the money from Mellon. . .

MARGARET WARNER: Young — now, you have to explain. You are talking about Andrew Young, who was an aide to John Edwards, right?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Yes. Yes.

And Andrew Young was essentially Edwards’ body man. He drove him to and from campaign appearances. The two men were more than just employer and employee, though. They were friends.

Young went to Edwards’ beach house. They went to UNC basketball games together. And when Edwards became embroiled in this affair and his mistress became pregnant, Young initially claimed the baby was his.

MARGARET WARNER: So you were explaining, so the defense contends, what, that the money was actually paid to Young.

MICHAEL BIESECKER: That the money — yes, that the money flowed through Young, that Edwards never touched the money, that Young took that money, deposited it in a personal account, and used most of it not to care for Edwards’ pregnant mistress, but to build a $1.5 million mansion outside of Chapel Hill.

They say most of the money from the heiress went to the construction of that home, not anything having to do with covering up the affair.

MARGARET WARNER: So then in the afternoon, Andrew Young himself took the stand?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Yes, he did.

He recounted how he met Edwards, how the first time he saw Edwards speak, when he was running for Senate in 1998, he knew that that man may become president and wanted to do anything he could to work for him. Through the years, he and Edwards grew, obviously, very close.

Young held the title of special aide to the senator. And Young recounted also the first time that he met Rielle Hunter, picking up Edwards from a flight at Dulles Airport. Hunter, then a campaign videographer that there were rumors swirling within the campaign about, got off the plane with Edwards, and for the first time, Young says he was directed to pick up Ms. Hunter’s bags and put them in the vehicle for him to ride — for her to ride to the hotel with Mr. Edwards.

Young also testified that he suspected that she spent the night in his room that night.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, it sounds like it is going to boil down to Young’s word vs. Edwards’.

First of all, how did Edwards react in the courtroom today? He is sitting at the defense table, right?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: He is sitting at the defense table, probably about 25 feet away from the witness stand. He stared intently at Young throughout Young’s testimony. However, Young never once looked back in Edwards’ direction.

MARGARET WARNER: And is he expected to testify, John Edwards?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: My understanding is that decision has not yet been made. But Mr. Edwards was known as a trial attorney in North Carolina, not only for being very successful for his clients, but his ability to woo jurors. And I would be very surprised if he didn’t take the stand in his own defense.

MARGARET WARNER: Now a lot of experts in campaign finance law say that this definition, if he were to be convicted, it really broadens the definition of what is a campaign contribution.

What do you understand to be the implications of this case, more broadly, beyond this drama that is playing out there?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, regardless of how the case turns out, it will be precedent-setting for campaign-finance law.

Essentially, Edwards’ attorneys contend that no one has ever been prosecuted for doing what he is alleged to have done, essentially money that never went through a campaign account, that the candidate never spent, that the defense contends was a gift from friends to help cover up a personal and private matter, that it didn’t have anything to do with the campaign.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally. . .

MICHAEL BIESECKER: The prosecution on the other hand says it’s a donation.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, of course, John Edwards really is the homeboy, North Carolina, the homeboy who made good, humble beginnings, came to fame and potentially vice president. How is this case being looked on and he being looked on in North Carolina today?

MICHAEL BIESECKER: Well, you know, for those us who pay attention to politics, it’s a huge case.

During jury selection, one thing that became very clear as they questioned potential jurors in the case, is a lot of North Carolinians didn’t pay attention to the scandal. They know who John Edwards is. They know he ran for president. They know he was their senator, but they really don’t know the details of this case. And how much they still care, I’m not sure.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Michael Biesecker of the Associated Press, thank you so much.