By Michael Biesecker Associated Press
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Shortly before his 2011 indictment on corruption charges, John Edwards called the elderly heiress whose money helped hide his pregnant mistress and asked for $3 million more, a witness testified Monday at the trial of the former presidential hopeful.
Librarian Tony L. Willis testified his boss, 101-year-old Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, sought his help in drafting a letter to the politician. Willis said Mellon told him she received a call from Edwards last year seeking $3 million to help him launch the next phase of his life. Mellon said she wanted to write to explain her reasons for declining his request.
Willis said the letter was never sent to Edwards at the direction of one of Mellon’s lawyers, who reviewed the document before it was to be mailed. It was then well known that Edwards was under investigation by a grand jury in North Carolina.
However, the jury considering Edwards’ fate at his criminal trial heard nothing about the financial request, made about three weeks before his June 2011 indictment on six counts related to alleged campaign finance violations. As a prosecutor questioned Willis — librarian of a vast private botanical library on Mellon’s 2,100-acre Virginia estate — one of Edwards’ defense lawyers objected. The judge then sent the jury from the room until she could hear what the witness had to say.
Edwards’ lawyer Alan Duncan argued that the 2011 request was irrelevant to the indictment, which focuses on what prosecutors called about $1 million in secret payments from Mellon and another supporter of his 2008 White House bid. Financial records in evidence show that some of that money was used to help hide Rielle Hunter, Edwards’ then-pregnant mistress, from tabloid reporters seeking to expose the Democrat’s affair.
Duncan argued that Willis’ testimony and the copy of Mellon’s letter that he retained could prejudice jurors against Edwards.
A cornerstone of the candidate’s defense is that his close aide and campaign fundraiser, Andrew Young, had been the one who asked Mellon for $725,000 in 2007 to take care of a “personal need” of the former senator, without disclosing precisely how the money would be used. Edwards denies knowing about the so-called “Bunny” money, much of which Young admits he kept and spent on building a dream home.
After several minutes of deliberation, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles upheld Duncan’s objection, barring prosecutors from asking about the letter in front of the jury or entering the document into evidence.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Earlier, Mellon lawyer and money manager Alex D. Forger testified that the heiress believed the $725,000 she sent to Young was intended as a gift to Edwards, not as a campaign contribution. Mellon had already given the maximum allowed $2,300 contribution to Edwards’ presidential primary campaign and would give another $6.4 million to a political action committee and other organizations associated with his White House bid.
Forger said Mellon, who first met Edwards’ in 2005, wanted to help the politician whom she considered a friend. He said the $6.4 million donated directly to Edwards’ groups was “quite small” compared to the heiress’ overall net worth.
“I think her primary interest was in John as a person,” Forger said. “She in her later years has had few close friends. Her husband had died, her daughter was ill. She took a liking to Senator Edwards. Whatever was of interest to him, she would support.”
In the afternoon, prosecutors called developer and clean energy entrepreneur Tim Toben to the stand. Toben was a contributor to Edwards campaign, as well as a friend of the candidate and his aide Young. In 2005, Toben sold Young a 10-acre tract adjacent to his own home and the men became neighbors.
Toben recounted receiving a call from Young shortly before Christmas 2007.
“He said the senator had a big favor to ask from me,” Toben recounted Young telling him. The aide asked Toben to meet him at his house next door, which was then still under construction, at 4 a.m. the next day. He was also cautioned not to ask any questions and not to talk about what he saw.
When Toben met Young, the aide was accompanied by his wife and another woman he couldn’t immediately identify.
“She had on dark glasses and a scarf even though it was dark out, and she was obviously pregnant,” he testified.
Toben drove the group to a hangar at the nearby Raleigh-Durham airport, where a private jet was waiting. Once inside the hangar and under the lights, Toben thought the pregnant woman looked familiar. He had sat next to Rielle Hunter a year earlier when she was part of a group that went with Edwards to a Dave Matthews Band concert.
The following afternoon, Toben said he got a call from Edwards, who was then preparing for his final campaign push before the Iowa caucuses. Toben said Edwards “thanked me for what I did for him,” without directly mentioning what it was that he had done.
About two weeks later, Toben said he got a call from Young and Hunter. By then, a tabloid had reported that Edwards had fathered a child with the mistress, prompting Young to then release a statement falsely claiming paternity. Young and his wife were then on the run with Hunter, traveling on private jets and staying at luxury resorts, all arranged and paid for by Edwards’ campaign finance chairman, Fred Baron.
Hunter asked Toben to go to the house in a gated community near Chapel Hill that had been rented for her by the Youngs, using some of the money from Mellon. While the mistress guided him on his cell phone, Toben used a hidden key to enter the home. He said Hunter asked him to retrieve a handful of personal items, including a pink cell phone and a framed photo on her nightstand.
The picture was of Hunter with her famous paramour, signed “I love you, John.”
Toben said he later mailed the items to Hunter, once she became settled in a $20,000-a-month rented mansion in Santa Barbara, Calif.
By then, Edwards had racked up a series of loses in the early primary states. Toben said he didn’t want his friend to win the Democratic nomination for president.
“I was rooting against Mr. Edwards because I thought the American people might forgive a mistress, but not a mistress with a baby,” he said.