John Edwards’s “Newsweek” Defense

A 2007 Newsweek cover featuring the former presidential candidate could prove key in helping Edwards’s team discredit the government’s star witness. Diane Dimond reports.

Gerry Broome

Andrew Young is considered to be the government’s key witness in the felony campaign-financing case against former presidential candidate John Edwards. In fact, Young’s anticipated testimony—along with voice-mail messages and handwritten notes from Edwards that he saved—are considered so important to the case that the former top campaign staffer is expected to be the prosecution’s lead-off witness when the trial gets underway this week.

Meantime, the defense is ready to pick the guy apart—and hopefully plant in the jury’s mind enough seeds of doubt about Young’s version of events surrounding Edwards’s spectacular fall from political grace, so that his effectiveness as a government witness evaporates. And how, exactly, does lead defense attorney Abbe Lowell plan to do that?

Newsweek & The Daily Beast has learned that part of Lowell’s strategy involves casting doubt on Young’s characterization of why he decided to publicly claim paternity of the love child Edwards had with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter. Young has claimed that he made the decision after seeing Edwards on a December 2007 cover of Newsweek and realizing the North Carolina senator had a good shot at becoming president.

In connection with an effort to compel testimony from Newsweek regarding the magazine’s December 2007 production schedule, one of Lowell’s colleagues—perhaps inadvertently—gave a rare pretrial glimpse inside the defense team’s strategy. According to one of the emails sent to an officer of Newsweek by an attorney in Lowell’s office at the law firm of Chadbourne & Parke in Washington, D.C.:

“The information regarding Newsweek’s publication schedule is extremely important to Mr. Edwards’ defense. Specifically, Andrew Young, the government’s main witness against Mr. Edwards, has stated that he was inspired to assume public paternity of Mr. Edwards’ child Quinn on December 14, 2007 and that the inspiration for doing so came when he saw Newsweek’s December 24 edition entitled “The Sleeper” sitting on the seat of his car. … Young has stated that the magazine’s coverage of Mr. Edwards convinced him of Edwards’ viability as a candidate and motivated him to agree to assume paternity of the child. As you can imagine, the government views this testimony as being central to its case.”

In response to the subpoena Lowell’s firm ultimately served on Newsweek, the company’s vice president and general counsel described, in her corporate capacity, the magazine’s 2007 publication schedule and explained that the issue Young claims to have seen on Dec. 14 wasn’t sent to the printer until the next day—Dec.15. Home subscribers would have gotten their copy no sooner than Dec.17, although some copies may have been publicly available in certain airport and train-station kiosks on Dec. 16.

In other words, the Edwards defense team believes it caught Young in a significant lie, and if they can convince the jury that Young routinely fibs it could go a long way toward impeaching all his testimony.

Contacted by telephone, Lowell was asked if his team really considers this apparent date discrepancy of Young’s as “extremely important,” as characterized in the email to the Newsweek officer. “We think everything is very important to the defense,” he answered. “I can’t comment to you about what is going to be the evidence at trial because we are operating under court rules that indicate I can’t.”

As followers of this saga know, Young authored a best-selling book, The Politician, in which he described how and why he came to claim paternity of the baby that was actually fathered by Edwards. When Hunter turned up pregnant in the middle of 2007, Edwards panicked, according to Young, for fear that his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, might discover his infidelity. On Oct. 11, 2007 the National Enquirer published a report about an affair Edwards had with “a former campaign staffer.” The name Rielle Hunter (a.k.a. Lisa Druck) wasn’t mentioned initially, and Edwards publically dismissed the story as “tabloid trash.”

The married Young writes of being flabbergasted at his boss’s request that he tell the press that the baby was his. Further, Edwards allegedly asked Young to gather up his own wife and children and go into hiding with the pregnant Hunter to keep the media guessing. Young says he agreed to the plan because, as he claims in the book, Edwards promised, “He would make sure I had a job in the future,” and he pulled on Young’s heartstrings by invoking Elizabeth’s illness. According to Young’s memory, Edwards told him “that if I helped him, I would make Mrs. Edwards’s dying days a bit easier…[saying] ‘I can’t let her die knowing this.’” (Elizabeth Edwards died three years later in December 2010 with full knowledge of her husband’s infidelity.)

Nearly $1 million was spent keeping Hunter and the Young family on the move and tucked away from the prying media until the baby was born in early 2008. No one disputes the money came from a longtime Edwards political supporter, the 101-year-old philanthropist Bunny Mellon (her contributions referred to as the “Bunny Money”), and the late campaign finance chairman Fred Baron. But the Edwards legal team has maintained the money was a gift and he had no personal control over it.

Federal prosecutors never bought that explanation. In a six-count felony indictment, prosecutors allege that the Bunny/Baron monies constituted illegal campaign contributions and were accepted and used to keep the campaign from disintegrating under the weight of a scandal.

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Lowell, whose fondness for his client goes back to 2003 when he began contributing money to John Edwards’s presidential campaigns, has a long history of being a confrontational advocate who is not afraid to engage with courtroom adversaries like Andrew Young. Whether a jury will be convinced to disregard Young’s testimony based on the Newsweek date controversy can’t be known. Court filings indicate that the Edwards defense also intends to paint Young as a man who took advantage of his wealthy boss’s secret scandal to siphon off money to pay for the “dream house” he and his wife were building. After poring over Young’s emails and bank accounts from the time in question, the defense team believes it can convince jurors that Young diverted money (intended to help Edwards cover up his bad behavior) and put it toward construction of his four-bedroom, gated-community home. A man named Scott McLean, identified as the contractor who built the home in 2007–08, is on the defense-witness list.

As court watchers will confirm, hammering on key witnesses often proves successful in planting seeds of doubt in jurors’ minds. Then again, that strategy has been known to backfire too.