GREENSBORO, N.C. — Attorneys hammered at the credibility of John Edwards and his once-trusted aide as arguments in his campaign corruption trial ended Thursday, leaving jurors to decide whether the presidential candidate’s sex scandal cover-up amounted to a crime or a litany of lies.
Jurors begin deliberations Friday on six counts of campaign finance fraud that could send Edwards to prison for up to 30 years.
They will weigh whether to believe Edwards’ arguments that he didn’t knowingly break the law when he sought to cover up an affair with his pregnant mistress, or his aide, Andrew Young, who said Edwards recruited him to use secret donations from wealthy donor to hide the affair.
In closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Bobby Higdon recounted Edwards’ affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer working on his campaign, and said the candidate would “deny, deceive and manipulate” at every turn to keep the revelation from destroying his political career.
Edwards knew of the money going to Young and Hunter from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and campaign finance chairman Fred Baron, Higdon said. He also was well aware of the $2,300 legal limit on campaign donations, Higdon said.
“It is a simple rule and applies to every candidate and every donor,” Higdon said.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell said prosecutors didn’t prove that Edwards knew that taking the money violated the law and said the 2008 candidate shouldn’t be convicted for being a liar.
“This is a case that should define the difference between a wrong and a crime … between a sin and a felony,” Lowell told the jury. “John Edwards has confessed his sins. He will serve a life sentence for those. But he has pleaded not guilty to violating the law.”
Lowell also pointed to inconsistent testimony of both Andrew Young and his wife, Cheri, about assurances they said Edwards gave them that accepting the money from Mellon was legal.
“Even those two, who could shame Bonnie and Clyde, couldn’t get their story straight,” Lowell said.
In rebuttal arguments, prosecutor David Harbach acknowledged Young’s inconsistencies on the stand, but questioned why he would have orchestrated a scheme that had him harboring Edwards’ mistress while he still lived with his wife.
“This guy is a criminal mastermind? Andrew Young?” Harbach asked sarcastically. “That’s nonsense. Andrew Young kept a lot of the money for himself. Of course he did. Has he lied in the past? Of course he has. … But if Andrew Young could say anything to help the government’s case, don’t you think he could have done a better job?”
Jurors appeared to be nodding frequently in response to Lowell, who stared squarely at the jurors for two hours as he made his case; Lowell appeared choked up at the end of his argument and put his face in his hands. Higdon, in contrast, often read from a binder and delivered his argument in a monotone.
Edwards is charged with six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that exceeded campaign finance limits, and causing his campaign to file a false financial disclosure report.
At the trial, prosecutors have shown two members of Edwards’ inner circle, Baron and Young, engaged in a yearlong cover-up to hide the married presidential candidate’s mistress from the media.
Prosecutors described how Edwards became increasingly desperate to hide the affair after Hunter was photographed by the National Enquirer in December 2007, saying it was Edwards’ idea to have Young say he fathered Hunter’s baby.
Baron provided Young and Hunter with more than $400,000 in cash, luxury hotels, private jets and a $20,000-a-month rental mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
“This wasn’t a guy quietly helping a friend. It was a full rescue operation … for a teetering campaign,” Higdon said, describing Baron’s involvement.
In January 2008, while Andrew Young, his wife, Cheri, and Hunter were hiding in California, there were 63 calls between them and Edwards, Higdon said. Sometimes there were four calls a day, with conversations routinely lasting more than 90 minutes.
Lowell reminded the jury that it was the Youngs who received the $725,000 in secret checks from Mellon, using most of it to help pay for a $1.6 million dream home, not to care for Hunter. Baron wired another $325,000 directly to the couple’s builder, on top of another $21,000 in cash provided by the Texas lawyer.
Lowell suggested Young would tell any lie he needed to in court to help the government’s case, saying the aide could capitalize further on a 2010 tell-all book deal.
“He needs a conviction for his next chapter in his next book,” Lowell said.
Lowell emphasized that none of the donors’ money was ever deposited into a campaign account, used for expenses such as political ads or staff salaries, and that no money went to the candidate. Nowhere in any federal regulation does it say that payments from one third party to another third party for personal expenses is a campaign contribution, Lowell said.
“If it is not a contribution for someone to pay the transportation or living expenses of campaign staffers, then how in the world can that be true for a mistress?” Lowell asked the jurors.
Higdon opened his argument by recounting Edwards’ announcement on Dec. 30, 2006, to run for president at an event in his hometown of Chapel Hill. The day was also the first time Edwards’ wife Elizabeth came face to face with his mistress, whom the candidate hired as a videographer through his political action committee.
“He wanted to be our leader. He asked for our vote. He had a popular wife and beautiful family, and on that day, the seeds of his destruction were sown.”
The prosecutor also used rhetoric from one of Edwards’ most famous stump speeches, recounting the “two Americas” and the need for the rich and the poor to have an equal say in elections.
“Campaign finance laws are designed to bring the two Americas together at election time,” Higdon said. “John Edwards forgot his own rhetoric.”