By Michael Biesecker Associated Press
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 that she helped him 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. The testimony came after a donor and policy adviser testified that he warned Barack Obama’s presidential campaign about Edwards’ infidelity during the summer of 2008.
Button said Edwards told her he knew that 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 cover-up.
Edwards has denied knowing about nearly $1 million in secret payments provided by Baron and another wealthy donor, the 101-year-old heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. He has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations.
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, 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 to build a house for themselves.
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’s single term in the U.S. Senate expired in January of 2005.
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 from the witness stand.
Edward then chose to take it out after conferring with others, but 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 the affair. But Edwards’ now-deceased 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 didn’t mention money used in the cover up.
Button will retake the witness stand Wednesday to be cross-examined by an Edwards lawyer.
Earlier Tuesday, a onetime donor and adviser to Edwards testified that he warned Obama’s presidential campaign staff in 2008 to look closely at rumors about Edwards’ infidelity before offering him any administration position.
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,” Toben said. “I couldn’t believe a man with a 4-month-old baby with another woman would seriously consider running for vice-president.”
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.
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.
Toben testified Monday that he learned of the affair after he was asked to transport the pregnant mistress to a private jet hangar around 4 a.m. while she was on the run from tabloid reporters. He later retrieved possessions of Hunter’s from a rented house in Chapel Hill that included a signed picture of Edwards. The picture was signed: “I love you, John.”
The issue of Edwards’ political viability between his suspension of his presidential campaign in January 2008 and his admission of the affair is another important topic at the trial.
Some of the secret money came after Edwards dropped out of the race, and his defense team argues that those payments can’t, therefore, be considered campaign contributions. Prosecutors point out that Edwards’ campaign committee continued to exist and that Edwards still hoped to hold public office.
Toben was also asked in front of jurors about a sex tape that showed Edwards and Hunter. The tape was found by Young, the former aide who had helped Hunter stay out of the public eye. Toben was Young’s friend and neighbor.
Asked by Edwards’ defense lawyers about the video, Toben admitted he had jokingly talked to Young about how much the sex tape might be worth. The defense lawyers produced a 2009 email from Toben to Young that said: “Wonder what that tape is worth today?”
Young is now a key witness for prosecutors, and Edwards’ lawyers have tried to portray him as greedy and dishonest. Young and his wife have testified that they had no intention of selling the tape but kept it as proof of the affair.