John Edwards

05.07.12

Witness Testifies He Took Rielle Hunter to an Airport in the Dead of Night

Kicking off what may be the prosecution's final week, a local builder described spiriting away John Edwards's pregnant mistress to a private jetport at 4 a.m. Diane Dimond reports.

It was some of the most damaging testimony to date in the campaign-finance corruption trial of former Senator John Edwards. The day began with the jury hearing jaw-dropping testimony about Edwards's most prolific contributor, 101-year-old Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, and ended with another former supporter declaring that the more he learned about the senator's scandal, the more he was openly "rooting against Mr. Edwards."

The day's first witness, attorney Alexander Darrow Forger, had to admit that when you added up all of his billionaire client's donations to John Edwards and Edwards's nonprofit groups, the total was over $7 million— $7,109,600 to be precise. The money was given by Bunny Mellon between January 2006 and December 2007.

The elderly Forger, who explained he has been practicing white-glove law in New York for more than 60 years, is a statuesque and distinguished man with a commanding baritone and decidedly upper-class diction. He insisted to the jury that the widow of billionaire Paul Mellon did not donate all that money solely to ensure Edwards was elected president. Rather, he said, she gave it because "she took a liking to Senator Edwards." They shared an interest in similar issues like combating poverty, and she had a "loyalty to friends."

Said prosecutor Robert Higdon, referring to the sum that went to two outside campaign entities set up to promote his campaign for president, "Did you know her to ever give $6.3 million to another friend?"

"No," Forger answered, "but she's given substantial amounts to others. This is not the first time."

At the morning break a smiling John Edwards turned away from the defense table and whispered to his daughter Cate, sitting behind him, "It's a good morning for the home team."

But Tony Willis, 50, the head librarian at the famous Mellon Library in Upperville, Va., contradicted Forger's testimony. He told the court he interacted with Ms. Mellon nearly every day and that she was all about getting John Edwards into the White House.

"She just thought he was the pick to be the next president of the United States," Willis said with a smile. "She was going to pay for whatever he needed." Willis said he filed away a letter Edwards sent Mrs. Mellon just two weeks after their very first meeting at her spectacular Oak Springs Farm property in December 2005. The senator wrote thanking her for her hospitality and then asked for two separate $500,000 donations for his Center For Promise and Opportunity and his College For Everyone organizations. The jury was allowed to read that letter but was not allowed to hear testimony about Edwards's attempt to get $3 million more from his benefactor in May 2011, about five months after Elizabeth Edwards died. Judge Catherine Eagles ruled the request was outside the time frame of the indictment.

“He said, ‘Choose between friendship with Andrew and friendship with me.’”

Bunny Mellon's handsome grandson, 35-year-old Thomas Lloyd, dressed in a cream-colored summer suit with white shirt and navy blue tie, buttressed the testimony that his grandmother wanted Edwards in charge of the country. "She was very interested in helping elect him president," he said. In fact, his grandmother told him she had already had a conversation the day before with her friend Hubert de Givenchy. "She had plans to have her inauguration gown made," he said.

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One-time campaign manager Nick Baldick, who the jury has heard referred to several times during this trial, was next in the witness box. He reiterated the problems the campaign experienced once Rielle Hunter came on the scene in mid-2006 and told his version of confronting Edwards about the "perception problem" his suspected affair was having on the staff. He warned what the revelation could mean to the campaign. But, Baldick said bluntly, "Mr. Edwards denied an affair." Baldick also testified about how he and another billionaire donor, the late Fred Baron of Dallas, devised a way to keep Andrew Young salaried (on staff at Baldick's Hilltop Public Solutions firm) while he was on the run with the senator's mistress and new baby.

"We talked about how we felt Andrew had taken one for the team. I thought Mr. Young had taken a bullet by falsely claiming paternity," Baldick said. But Hilltop was running out of money to pay Young for the no-show job. Baldick testified that Baron agreed to provide funds to pay for Young's salary until the end of 2008.

So far in this trial, now in its third week at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, N.C., no witnesses have come forward to testify that John Edwards thought he was breaking federal campaign laws -- even if he was orchestrating the travelling cover-up of his pregnant mistress and the Young family. Quite the opposite. Everyone who asked the candidate about the legal ramifications has testified Edwards told them that he had consulted campaign-financing experts and learned that neither accepting the Bunny Money nor spending it on the Hide Hunter project was illegal. Attorneys watching the trial from inside the courtroom say that could prove crucial for the jury to hear.

The day's last witness appeared to be devastating to the defense.

Tim Toben, a local builder and one-time supporter of Edwards revealed he was the one who drove his good friend Andrew Young, Young's wife Cheri, and an unidentified pregnant woman wearing sunglasses and a scarf to a private jetport at 4 a.m. on December 20, 2007, where they took flight from North Carolina. Later that same day John Edwards called him, he said. "Mr. Edwards wanted to thank me and [said] that he would never forget what I did for him." Toben told the jury he didn't know who the pregnant woman was or where the trio had gone, but a few weeks later, when Young put Rielle Hunter on the phone and he was asked to remove certain items from her rented Chapel Hill home, it became clear. Toben's second mysterious mission was to collect Hunter's pink cellphone and two photos of John Edwards—one emblazoned with "I Love You, John," and the other simply, "Love, John"—and hide them in his office.

Toben, his wife and two adult children had all given the maximum monetary contributions to the Edwards for President campaign. They had sponsored fundraisers and performed other duties. But after the National Enquirer blew the lid off the scandal in December 2007, Toben admitted, "I was rooting against Mr. Edwards. I thought the American people could forgive a mistake with a mistress, but not a mistress with a baby."

In June 2008 the disgraced politician asked Toben to dinner one evening. "The first thing he said to me was, "Have you seen the polls? I would give Obama a six-point boost in Pennsylvania and Ohio,'" Toben told the court. "He had every intention of being vice president if asked. He also talked about ... (possibly being) attorney general." If both of those opportunities failed, Toben said Edwards had a plan to start an antipoverty foundation with money he would get from Bunny Mellon. "He said it would be a chip shot for her to fund it with $50 million."

At that dinner Toben passed along a message from Andrew Young, still on the road with his family and wondering why his boss hadn't called him since the baby was born four months earlier. "I told him Andrew really misses you. He said, "I'll always love Andrew. But Elizabeth will have none of it, for me to be in touch with Andrew.'"

Toben's final story to the jury involved a seemingly chance meeting between himself and John Edwards on Rosemary Street in Chapel Hill in July 2009. It had been more than a year since their dinner and Toben said he soon became "frustrated" with this conversation. Talk of Andrew Young's upcoming book was rampant, and according to Toben, Edwards gave him an ultimatum. "He said, 'Choose between friendship with Andrew and friendship with me, (because) Andrew had crossed the line.'" And then Edwards tossed out an accusation against his formerly loyal aide Toben knew wasn't true.

"He told me Andrew had tried to bilk $50 million out of Mrs. Mellon," said Toben. "Obviously he had forgotten he had told me about his foundation plan a year earlier."

Tim Toben returns to the stand tomorrow.