SOFT OPENING

05.14.12

John Edwards’s Defense Gets Off to a Rocky Start

After days of watching their client get pummeled by the prosecution, John Edwards's team finally began their case--and were immediately smacked down by the judge. Diane Dimond reports.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Eagles was not amused. As John Edwards’s lawyer took to the podium to begin the defense's presentation in the campaign-finance corruption case, the judge stopped him cold.

Video screenshot

Diane Dimond on the defense's case.

“You didn’t tell me about this witness on Friday,” she scolded attorney Abbe Lowell as he announced his first witness, one Scott Thomas of the Federal Elections Commission. Lowell, apologizing, began to explain the difficulties of his witnesses’ schedules, and that this decision was made over the weekend. But Eagles was angry—there would need to be a lengthy hearing about Thomas’s proposed testimony before she could decide if the jury would be allowed to hear him. And Eagles did not want the jury to have to wait.

“You’ve created this problem,” she said to Lowell. “And I don’t see why I need to accommodate this."

And she didn’t. Thomas—who was set to testify that the almost $1 million from political supporters Rachel “Bunny” Mellon and the late Fred Baron did not, in his opinion, constitute a campaign contribution—was not allowed to address the jury. The judge ultimately decided that since many statutes, “clearly define what a campaign contribution is,” it should be left to the jury to decide if the Mellon-Baron money was given with the intent to influence the Edwards’ campaign for president.

It was an embarrassing false start for the defense in such a high-profile, high-stakes case, and the first witness testifying for Edwards became, instead, the former chief financial officer of his 2008 presidential campaign. Lora Haggard testified that she never reported the Mellon-Baron money on any F.E.C. reporting forms because she never knew about it—not until she read about the indictment of her former boss in the newspaper in early June 2011. Outside the presence of the jury, she told the court she didn’t think that the funds would qualify as a contribution anyway.

The Edwards defense team has long maintained that the money in question could not be considered a campaign contribution because the Edwards campaign had already failed by the time his mistress Rielle Hunter went into hiding with the senator’s loyal aide, Andrew Young, and Young's wife and three children. Pollster and political advisor Harrison Hickman was called to the stand to bolster this theory.

Hickman, a large, jovial North Carolinian with a soothing Southern drawl, seemed to capture the jury’s attention from the get-go. He casually glanced at jurors as he told the story of meeting Edwards in 1997, and how they became fast friends as they were the same age and both came from very small towns. He said they used to jokingly argue about whose town was smaller.

“John said Robbins [North Carolina] was so small that their Welcome and Goodbye signs were on the same sign,” he said as the jury chuckled. “I said my town was so small that we had driver’s ed and sex ed in the same car!” The whole courtroom laughed out loud.  Except for Judge Eagles.

Hickman then got with the defense agenda and explained that he had told Edwards even before the Iowa caucuses (held January 3, 2008) that “it was not going to work out, it was done.” His polling company, Hickman Analytics, had showed that Edwards was a distant third behind Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and would not recover. The impression eft with the jury was that if a campaign is not thought to be successful, monies coming in aren’t really campaign contributions. But that is not the law.

Hickman also hit several of the defense team’s other themes. He said that Elizabeth Edwards was the one who was calling the shots on strategy to keep news of the affair out of the mainstream media.

“If Andrew told me it was raining, I’d go look out the window. I didn’t trust him at all.”

“She did not want the humiliation,” Hickman said. And he added that John Edwards deferred to his wife in every way on this strategy.

There were questions about whether Fred Baron may have illegally financed the Hide Hunter project to help his friend John Edwards’s presidential campaign. The experienced political adviser declared, “Fred Baron was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met,” and added that Baron’s persnickety, legally oriented nature would never have allowed him to violate campaign law. Why then did Baron bankroll Hunter and the Youngs on their months-long cross-country odyssey, the journey that helped keep them out of sight?

“He did it personally,” Hickman said as he described telephone calls he had with Baron during the billionaire’s final days in the hospital. “He did it because these people’s lives were being disrupted by paparazzi … these three people [Hunter, Young and his wife, Cheri] had helped John Edwards for so long he [Baron] wanted to help them.” And Hickman declared that Baron firmly believed that Andrew Young was the baby’s real father—until Edwards was caught by the National Enquirer at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where he had gone to visit his mistress and their infant daughter in June 2008. “That’s when he began to have doubts,” Hickman said. Baron died of cancer four months later.

Attorney Lowell finished his direct examination of the pollster by asking him his opinion of Andrew Young, the prosecution’s key witness and a man who has been routinely vilified by the defense during the trial.

“I had a problem with him,” Hickman said forcefully. “If Andrew told me it was raining, I’d go look out the window. I didn’t trust him at all.”

At the close of business it was announced that 30-year-old Cate Edwards would be called to testify, perhaps as early as tomorrow, presumably about her late mother, Elizabeth, and the atmosphere inside the home as news of her father’s torrid extramarital affair trickled out to the public. Cate, a lawyer, may also testify about how her father’s behavior was driven by a need to keep Elizabeth unaware and not by a desire to rehabilitate a failing presidential campaign.

Lowell says there has been no decision made yet as to whether John Edwards will testify on his own behalf, and that the defense may wrap up as early as Wednesday or Thursday. Prosecutors then get rebuttal time. The jury could get the case by the end of this week.