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Government's star witness leads off Edwards trial

From Raelyn Johnson and Joe Johns, CNN
updated 10:18 PM EDT, Mon April 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Ex-aide, the government's star witness, leads off John Edwards' trial
  • NEW: Donor thought Edwards would be "savior of America," Andrew Young testifies
  • Defense opens by questioning Young's credibility and contact with witnesses
  • Edwards is accused of using campaign contributions to hide his mistress

Greensboro, North Carolina (CNN) -- The wealthy backer whose money helped two-time presidential candidate John Edwards hide his pregnant mistress "felt like he was going to be the savior of America," the government's star witness against Edwards testified Monday.

Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, is accused of using hundreds of thousands of dollars from 101-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and another donor to conceal his affair with Rielle Hunter. Former Edwards aide Andrew Young, the first witness in Edwards' trial, said Mellon was an enthusiastic supporter who apologized for not being able to give the campaign more than $1 million.

"She said she was close personal friends with Senators John and Bobby Kennedy and felt like Edwards was the best combination of them," Young testified.

Prosecutors say Edwards broke federal law by accepting about $725,000 from Mellon and more than $200,000 from Fred Baron, a now-deceased Texas lawyer who was his finance chairman. The money was used to pay for Hunter's living and medical expenses, travel and accommodations to her out of sight while he made his second White House run in 2008, prosecutors say.

Edwards is accused of concealing the money from the public and the Federal Election Commission, which polices political contributions, by filing false and misleading campaign disclosure reports.

John Edwards criminal trial begins
Edwards trial timeline

"This affair was a gamble with exceedingly high stakes," prosecutor David Harbach told jurors during Monday's opening statements. "If the affair went public, it would have destroyed any chance to become president and he knew it. Two of his most enthusiastic supporters happened to be wealthy, and he knew that, too. He made a choice to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars. He made a choice to break the law."

Edwards admitted to his affair with Hunter in 2008, after his presidential ambitions foundered. In 2010, he admitted he was the father of Hunter's daughter.

Young, who is married, once falsely claimed he was the father of Hunter's child. He is the author of "The Politician: An Insider's Account of John Edwards's Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down," in which he accused Edwards of using money from his benefactors to maintain his relationship with Hunter.

The defense argues the money he received from Mellon and Baron was for personal reasons -- to protect Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, who was dying of cancer, and his family from public humiliation. Edwards has said his actions were wrong but insisted they were not illegal.

"This was a fall from grace," defense attorney Allison Van Laningham told jurors. "It was that humiliation he was trying to avoid all along."

Edwards could face up to 30 years in prison if convicted of all six felony and misdemeanor counts against him. Seven of the 16 jurors, four of whom are alternates, are women.

Young said Mellon had a private plane fly him to her Virginia estate in 2006, where she asked what she could do to help Edwards win the White House. She apologized not being able to give more than $1 million to the effort, Mellon said.

"She felt like he was going to be the savior of America," he testified.

Young said he began to have suspicions about the affair in September 2006, after Hunter had been hired to shoot Edwards campaign videos. He said he picked up Hunter and Edwards at Washington's Dulles International Airport. For the first time in seven years of working for the former North Carolina senator, Edwards asked him to carry their luggage, Young testified.

Edwards used Young's phone to make several calls to Hunter in the following days, which included a visit to Mellon's home. When Hunter called Young on one of those days to ask about her schedule, he said, he could hear Edwards cough in the background. And at the end of the trip, he said he and Edwards took her back to Dulles, something he said was never done for campaign staff.

Edwards' lawyers wasted no time attacking Young's credibility, starting with their opening statements. Van Laningham alleged that Young consulted with three other witnesses about testimony after the witness list was released three weeks ago and portrayed him as a greedy staffer who has said Edwards was his ticket to the top.

Van Laningham also pointed out that Young had his own affair, a one-night stand with a campaign employee.

Young is testifying for the prosecution under a cooperation agreement with the hopes that he won't be prosecuted. During his testimony, which continues Tuesday, he also admitted to being arrested for driving while intoxicated in 2006.

Edwards was accompanied into court Monday by his oldest daughter, Cate, and his parents. He was somber and focused during opening statements, and Judge Catherine Eagles said he won't take the witness stand during the trial.

Experts say the government faces an uphill battle to convict Edwards in a legal field riddled with loopholes. The former senator refused a plea bargain that would have given him a few months in prison but would have allowed him to keep his law license.

His wife, Elizabeth, died of cancer in December 2010. The pair had separated after Edwards acknowledged the paternity of Hunter's child, but Edwards was at her bedside when she died.

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