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John Edwards' legal team begins his defense

From Adam Reiss, Ted Metzger and Joe Johns, CNN
updated 10:18 PM EDT, Mon May 14, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: The judge in the case limits testimony from a key defense witness
  • John Edwards' oldest daughter, Cate, is expected to take the stand
  • Witness Lora Haggard testifies Edwards had nothing to do with reports filed with the FEC
  • Prosecutors argue the former presidential candidate violated campaign contribution laws

Greensboro, North Carolina (CNN) -- After weeks of hearing from prosecutors, jurors in the corruption trial of former presidential candidate John Edwards heard Monday from his defense team, which opened its case with testimony from a former financial officer.

Edwards, who faces six felony counts, is accused of conspiracy, making false statements and violating campaign contribution laws. He has pleaded not guilty.

His oldest daughter, Cate Edwards, is expected to testify this week, possibly as early as Tuesday, according to defense attorney Abbe Lowell. The defense has not yet made a decision about whether to put Edwards on the stand, the attorney said.

Toward the end of the day Monday, the judge presiding over the case ruled that she would not allow the bulk of testimony from an expert witness the defense had planned to call, former Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairman Scott Thomas. It was not clear Monday whether the defense would still call him for the limited testimony that is allowed, or skip Thomas altogether.

For its first witness, the defense called Lora Haggard, who worked as the chief financial officer for Edwards' 2008 presidential campaign.

She testified Edwards had nothing to do with reports the campaign filed with the FEC.

"Mr. Edwards was not involved in the review, preparation, or filing of the reports," she said, adding that "we rarely saw him in (campaign) headquarters" in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Her testimony is important, as Edwards is accused of making false statements because he never disclosed donations from Fred Baron, a now-deceased Texas lawyer who was Edwards' finance chairman, and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.

Prosecutors say Edwards broke federal law by accepting over-the-limit donations of more than $200,000 from Baron and about $725,000 from Mellon.

But defense attorneys argue the money Edwards received from the two donors 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 not illegal.

Haggard also testified that she thought the checks from the two donors did not belong on FEC forms because they were personal gifts, not campaign contributions.

Finally, she said the FEC knew about the checks from Baron and Mellon because the campaign was still undergoing an FEC audit at the time of Edwards' indictment.

After discussions with the FEC about the checks, there was "no instruction" from the government agency to add them to the reports, she said.

The campaign was undergoing a mandatory audit because it had elected to accept public funding in the primary.

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Prosecutors wrapped their case last week, detailing hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses used by Edwards' former mistress, whose concealment during his failed presidential run remains at the heart of the scandal.

They did not call to the stand Rielle Hunter, Edwards' mistress and the mother of his youngest child.

As its final piece of evidence, the prosecution showed was a 2008 ABC interview with Edwards in which the North Carolina Democrat denied having fathered the child.

He later admitted to the affair with Hunter, after his presidential ambitions foundered. In 2010, he said he was the father of her daughter.

If convicted on all counts, Edwards could face up to 30 years behind bars.

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