GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — The lawyer for a wealthy heiress who provided secret payments intended to help John Edwards testified Friday that the former presidential candidate acknowledged the money had been given for his benefit.
Alex D. Forger said that Edwards' then-lawyer Wade Smith told him in the fall of 2008 that the former candidate agreed that the $725,000 given by 101-year-old Rachel "Bunny" Mellon had been provided to help him. It wasn't clear from Forger's testimony at Edwards' criminal trial precisely when Edwards learned about the checks given to his aide, Andrew Young.
Some of Mellon's money was used to hide Edwards' pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. Whether Edwards had knowledge of the cover-up is a key question in his prosecution on charges related to campaign finance corruption.
Edwards has denied knowing about the secret payments from Mellon. Young testified last week his former boss directed the scheme from the start.
Forger, a semi-retired attorney from New York City, has helped manage Mellon's financial affairs for decades. With a shock of white hair and bushy eyebrows, Forger didn't disclose his age on the witness stand but said he has practiced estate and trust law for more than 60 years.
His voice still deep and strong, he recounted the 2008 conversation with Smith, a long-practicing North Carolina defense lawyer who had years earlier hired a novice Edwards at his Raleigh firm.
Forger said that in the fall of 2008, Smith and Charlotte defense lawyer Jim Cooney called him to give a "heads up" that federal investigators had launched a probe into Edwards' presidential campaign.
Forger told the lawyers working for Edwards that he had been concerned for months about $725,000 in checks from Mellon that had been written to a Charlotte interior designer and labeled as being for chairs, tables and bookcases. Forger had learned those checks were endorsed by the designer and then deposited into an account controlled by Andrew Young.
Forger also knew Young was a fundraiser for Edwards, and was concerned about whether his client had violated any laws. Individual contributions to political candidates were then limited to $2,300 an election cycle.
"I knew Mrs. Mellon was not buying furniture," Forger testified. "Was this a scam? Was this a criminal matter where funds had been siphoned off from her? I didn't know."
Forger said he asked the Edwards lawyer whether his client agreed the money was intended for his benefit. Smith replied that he didn't know but would find out.
A short time later, Smith called back.
"'Yes, John acknowledges now that these were for his benefit,'" Forger quoted Smith as saying.
Prosecutor Bobby Higdon then immediately suggested the judge recess for the weekend, thereby denying Edwards' defense team their opportunity to cross examine Forger until Monday.
Smith represented Edwards until October 2011, when federal prosecutors informed him they intended to call him as a witness at Edwards' trial. Cooney withdrew from Edwards' defense team in March and was later named as a potential witness for the defense.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
Forger said he first learned about the money Mellon was sending the interior designer in October 2007, when a banker called to say there were insufficient funds in a personal account to cover the $150,000 sum.
Forger said he questioned Mellon about the check, and she told him the money was really "for the benefit of John Edwards." Forger knew Mellon, who rarely leaves her expansive Virginia estate, was an admirer of Edwards. She had already given millions to organizations supporting the presidential candidate, who was then campaigning in early primary states for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
"She said she was impressed with Mr. Edwards and thought he would make a fine president, reminiscent of her good friend John F. Kennedy," Forger testified.
Dogged by tabloid reports about his affair, Edwards was forced to withdraw from the race in January 2008. In the following months, it also became clear he also wouldn't be the Democratic nominee for vice president, as he had been four years earlier.
The following May, Forger attended an event with Edwards and his wife at a New York art gallery. Forger said when he asked him about the checks the former candidate suggested they step outside for a private conversation. Forger asked Edwards if he knew Bryan Huffman, to whom the checks had been written. Edwards denied he knew the interior designer.
In fact, Edwards had met Huffman more than a year earlier at Mellon's estate. Huffman also testified earlier this week that Edwards had called him several times, including that very month.
Forger spoke with Edwards about the checks again that summer, after the candidate had been caught by tabloid reporters visiting his mistress, Rielle Hunter, and the baby for which he still denied paternity at a Beverly Hills hotel.
Edwards then said he had no idea his aide, who had been helping take care of Hunter for more than a year, had asked Mellon for the $725,000. He apologized and suggested Young should have to repay the money.
On the witness stand Thursday, Huffman, 48, described himself as the elderly millionaire's "evening friend" — someone she calls for a chat before bedtime. He testified about participating in a scheme where checks were written to the interior designer with notations such as "Antique Charleston Table" in the memo line. Huffman would endorse them and pass them along to Young.
He said the ruse was invented by Mellon to throw off her family money managers, including Forger, by making it appear they were engaged in a furniture business.
On Friday, the congenial Charlotte designer testified about how Mellon reacted after learning some of her money had gone to the cover up. He said Mellon was not one to judge someone for having an extramarital affair. Her relationship with her first husband overlapped with that of her second.
But, Huffman said, Mellon had an opinion about how her money was spent.
"She thought maybe you should probably pay for your girlfriend yourself," Huffman replied.
As the courtroom erupted in laughter, even the former North Carolina senator seated at the defense table cracked a smile.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck