By MICHAEL BIESECKER
GREENSBORO, NC (AP) -- Lawyers for John Edwards worked Wednesday to undercut the federal government's criminal case against the former presidential candidate before it ever gets to a jury.
Edwards is scheduled to be tried in January on charges that he asked two wealthy campaign donors to provide nearly $1 million in secret payments used to hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the Democratic Party's nomination for the White House in 2007 and early 2008.
In a hearing to consider five motions seeking the dismissal of the case, lawyer Abbe Lowell said his client knew nothing of the checks, cash and private jets used to fly the woman, Rielle Hunter, across the country and put her up in luxury homes and hotels.
But even if Edwards did know, Lowell told US District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles, no laws were broken.
"Criminal laws are supposed to be written in Congress," Lowell said. "They should not be written on the desks of prosecutors who decide after the fact what is to be permissible."
Edwards sat quietly at the defense table as Lowell called the government's case "crazy." Lowell argued there is no statute or precedent in federal law where a campaign contribution is defined as money "provided by a third party to another third party" that never went through a campaign account.
In Edwards' case, the money was provided by his national campaign finance chairman, wealthy Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and
campaign donor Bunny Mellon, a millionaire socialite who at the time was 98 years old. Both had already given Edward's campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by law.
Much of the undisclosed money was funneled to Andrew Young, a close aide to Edwards who left the campaign and falsely claimed paternity of the senator's illegitimate child. Young and his wife invited the pregnant Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and later travelled with her as tabloid reporters sought to expose the candidate's extramarital affair.
"Whether John Edwards is a candidate for president or a guy down the street, there are a lot of people who don't advertise
they're having a sexual affair," Lowell said.
As an example, he cited former U.S. Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, whose parents gave a $96,000 check to his married mistress as "severance" when she left the employment of his campaign. Federal Elections officials later determined the payment was a personal gift, not a campaign contribution.
Prosecutors countered Wednesday that they intend to prove Edwards knew full well about the money paid by Baron and Mellon and that he personally directed its use to support Hunter. He was not a cheating husband trying to hide his affair from his wife, they argued, but a public figure who had built his reputation as a family man desperate to keep his campaign from blowing up.
"We have a candidate who asked two donors for money," said David Harbach II, one of the federal prosecutors, told the judge.
"That candidate doesn't insulate himself from liability because someone else cashes the checks."
It was not immediately clear when Judge Eagles might rule of the motions asking her to throw out the government's case.
She did rule on a motion from prosecutors questioning whether Lowell had a conflict of interest in the case because he previously represented two potential witnesses in the case when they testified before a federal grand jury.
Eagles ruled that Lowell could continue with the case, though she asked Edwards to stand and answer some questions about the issue.
Edwards, who previously denied his affair on national television, rose from the table, placed his hand on a Bible and
swore to tell the truth.
Eagles asked the former candidate if he understood that by having Lowell represent him, he opened the possibility of a
potential conflict of interest arising at trial that could result in the judge limiting the lawyer's participation.
"I do understand that," Edwards said.
The judge then asked whether Edwards wished to talk the issue over with any lawyer other than the four then sitting with him.
An attorney himself, Edwards flashed a quick smile.
"No, I think I've talked to enough lawyers," he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)