GREENSBORO, N.C. — Testimony in the federal corruption trial of former Sen. John Edwards began Monday with the man on whom much of the government's case hinges, Andrew Young, a former campaign staff member once so close to Edwards that he claimed paternity of the child Edwards had tried to hide.
Prosecutors allege that Edwards masterminded a conspiracy to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy donors to help hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.
Edwards, 58, has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to alleged violations of federal campaign finance laws stemming from accepting money in excess of the $2,300 legal limit for individual contributions. Federal law defines campaign contributions as money given to influence the outcome of a U.S. election.
"It wasn't just a marriage on the line," prosecutor David Harbach said in his opening statement. "If the affair went public, it would destroy his chance of becoming president, and he knew it. … He made a choice to break the law."
The defense team says that much of the money at issue in the case was siphoned off by Young and his wife to pay for a $1.5 million house finished in 2008.
"Follow the money," defense lawyer Allison Van Laningham urged jurors in her opening statement. "John Edwards did not get any of this money. Not one cent."
Edwards' lawyers say the payments were gifts from friends intent on keeping the candidate's wife from finding out about the affair. Elizabeth Edwards died in 2010 after battling cancer.
A key issue will be whether Edwards knew about the payments made on his behalf by his national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a now-101-year-old heiress and socialite. She contributed $725,000 of the money.
Edwards denies having known about the money, which paid for private jets, luxury hotels and then-mistress Rielle Hunter's medical care. Prosecutors will seek to prove that he sought and directed the payments to cover up his affair, protect his public image as a family man and keep his presidential hopes viable.
Young, who has immunity from prosecution, is expected to be on the stand all day today and probably into Wednesday. On Monday, he testified about his relationship with the Edwards family and his connections to Mellon.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.