GREENSBORO, NC (Reuters) – Prosecutors in the criminal campaign finance case against former US Senator John Edwards yesterday described him as a manipulative politician who refused to let his affair or his mistress’ pregnancy sideline his presidential ambitions.
But Edwards’ defence asked jurors to “follow the money,” saying the nearly $1 million in illegal campaign funds he is accused of secretly accepting as he sought the 2008 Democratic nomination instead went to a former campaign aide who used the money to pay for his $1.5 million house.
Attorneys gave opening statements at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state where Edwards grew up and was elected as a US Senator in 1998. The two-time presidential hopeful was the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee in 2004.
He was indicted in North Carolina last year on six counts, including charges of conspiracy, taking illegal campaign contributions and making false statements. Each count carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Attorneys yesterday picked a racially diverse jury of seven women and nine men to hear the case. Only 12 of them ultimately will decide whether Edwards is guilty, but the four alternates will not know who they are until deliberations begin
Dozens of journalists from national and local media organizations crammed into the courtroom to watch the start of the trial, so many that not all were able to fit inside. Edwards’ parents and eldest daughter, Cate, also attended.
Prosecutors say Edwards, 58, was aware of the payments from the wealthy donors, and the money was meant to influence the federal election. Had it been publicly revealed that Edwards had an affair with a campaign worker who became pregnant, Edwards knew his presidential candidacy and his marriage would be doomed, prosecutor David Harbach said.
Harbach said the affair began in February 2006 when Edwards met Rielle Hunter in a New York City bar.
The indictment says their liaison lasted more than two years, during which time Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, was battling the cancer that ultimately killed her in 2010.
“This affair was a gamble with exceedingly high stakes,” Harbach told jurors. “He made a choice to break the law.” Harbach said Edwards directed his loyal campaign aide, Andrew Young, to seek money from heiress Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and campaign finance chairman Fred Baron to help pay for Hunter’s living and medical expenses and to keep her out of the public eye.