GREENSBORO, N.C. — The judge overseeing the criminal trial of John Edwards will curtail the testimony of a key witness for the defense who could raise doubt about whether the former presidential candidate broke campaign finance laws.
Edwards' lawyers had intended to call former Federal Election Commission chairman Scott E. Thomas as their first witness Monday morning, but prosecutors objected.
Judge Catherine C. Eagles sent the jury home early so she could listen as Thomas answered questions to preview his intended testimony.
Thomas said it was his opinion that nearly $1 million secretly provided by two campaign donors and used to hide the Democrat's pregnant mistress while he sought the White House in 2008 did not qualify as campaign contributions under existing federal law.
"These are intensely personal, by their very nature," said Thomas, who served on the FEC from 1986 to 2006 after appointments by Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton. "In my view this is a clear-cut case that the payments were not campaign contributions."
Thomas cited cases before the FEC to support of his position, including a $96,000 payment by the parents of former Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada to his mistress that was determined not to violate the law.
But the jury deciding Edwards' fate will not hear any of that testimony, which supports the defense position that the secret payments benefiting Edwards' mistress were gifts from his wealthy friends, not political contributions intended to aide his presidential candidacy.
Judge Eagles agreed with prosecutors that Thomas' personal opinions and past FEC rulings are irrelevant to their criminal prosecution of Edwards.
She said the former commissioner made what amounts to closing argument for the defense and that campaign finance statutes weren't as confusing as Thomas made out.
Lead defense lawyer Abbe Lowell appeared incredulous as he asked Eagles for further explanation of her ruling, which he suggested flew in the face of established case law. He warned that the limits amounted to "reversible error" that might be overturned on appeal.