Mellon’s lawyer supports defense version of gifts to Edwards

Posted May 07, 2012, at 9:27 p.m.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Virginia philanthropist who issued $725,000 in checks to benefit John Edwards thought of the former presidential candidate as a friend first, Alexander Forger, her lawyer, testified Monday.

Forger returned to the stand Monday morning in the trial of Edwards, the former Democratic presidential contender accused of violating campaign finance laws.

The philanthropist, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, 101, has failing eyesight and a loss of hearing, Forger said, but her mind is sharp.

A tall, stately man who has practiced law for more than 60 years in New York, Forger gave a detailed description of the attitudes and the intentions of the centenarian he referred to as “Mrs.”

On the 11th day of testimony in a case that is expected to test the sweep of campaign finance law, prosecutor Robert Higdon asked a question about Mellon’s intent in providing the money, but Forger’s response bolstered the defense. Forger said Mellon was intending to provide gifts, not campaign contributions. “Her view of Mr. Edwards was she liked him as a person,” Forger said.

She was not as concerned about him being president as she was with supporting him in any of his endeavors, the white-haired lawyer continued.

“If he wanted to be president of Duke University, she would have supported that,” Forger continued. “She wasn’t interested in being named secretary of state or ambassador … ”

One of Mellon’s “basic values is loyalty, loyalty to friends,” Forger added.

The government contends that the Mellon money was a contribution to Edwards’ campaign and he broke the law by not reporting her checks and by accepting donations in excess of individual campaign contribution limits. Edwards’ attorneys argue that the checks were not campaign contributions, but gifts from Mellon to take care of a personal matter, namely the hiding of Edwards’ pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter.

Higdon focused on one line from Forger’s testimony before a federal grand jury that later indicted Edwards on six counts related to campaign finance law violations. Forger testified then that Mellon was interested in helping Edwards become president. But Forger said that statement was taken out of the larger context of Mellon’s relationship with Edwards and he asked if he could elaborate. Higdon did not seek any further elaboration, so Edwards’ attorney, Abbe Lowell, in a second cross-examination of Forger, offered him that opportunity.

The contention that Mellon only offered the money to support Edwards’ run for president ” … puts too narrow a focus on this woman, that’s why I wanted to elucidate,” he said.

Despite Forger’s characterization of Mellon’s intent, prosecutors have a handwritten letter from her suggesting she was aware of the campaign implications of her gifts.

In an April 21, 2007, letter to Edwards’ then-aide Andrew Young, Mellon said she was upset that Edwards was being criticized after his campaign funding reports disclosed that he paid $400 for a haircut.

“From now on,” Mellon wrote, “all haircuts, etc. that are necessary, important part of his campaign, please send the bills to me c/o Alex Forger in New York. It is a way to help our friends without government restrictions.”

What Mellon meant by that offer is contested. Mellon is on a witness list, but at her advanced age she is not expected to be called to testify.

In additional testimony, Forger went on about his questions and conversations with other attorneys about the series of checks that Mellon wrote. The checks were written to her friend, interior decorator Bryan Huffman, who endorsed them, and then sent them to Young, whose wife endorsed them and deposited the money in the Youngs’ private account.

(c)2012 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

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