A key member of the legal team defending John Edwards against campaign finance charges will likely be unable to represent the former Democratic presidential candidate at his upcoming trial following questions about a potential conflict of interest.
The development comes after prosecutors questioned whether Raleigh defense lawyer Wade Smith has a conflict of interest because of a 2009 conversation he had with a financial adviser for Bunny Mellon, the 101-year-old socialite who provided the bulk of nearly $1 million used to support Edwards' pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he ran for president in 2007.
According to a motion filed by the government, Smith told Mellon's adviser that Edwards knew the money was intended to help him. That would conflict with statements by Edwards that he knew nothing of the payments and the money was not for his benefit.
The motion says prosecutors plan to question the adviser about Smith's statements during trial.
Smith said Monday the issue gives him little choice but to withdraw because it's likely he would be called to testify about the conversation.
"As a trial lawyer, if there is a good chance I will be needed at the trial to testify, then I would not want to be part of the trial team," Smith said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It would be very awkward, and really inappropriate."
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six felony and misdemeanor counts related to campaign finance violations. A trial is scheduled to begin in January.
In losing Smith, Edwards would be deprived of one of the most well-known criminal defense lawyers in North Carolina. A lawyer for nearly 50 years, Smith's previous clients include one of the three members of the Duke University lacrosse team cleared in 2007 of charges they gang-raped a stripper.
As a young lawyer, Edwards worked as an associate at Smith's firm and the two men share a decades-long long friendship.
"I've been in the case a long time, two or three years, and I would hate to miss this part," Smith said. "But there are plenty of good trial lawyers in the case and it's no big deal if I don't get to sit in."
Smith's expected withdrawal first became public as a footnote in a motion filed by prosecutors Friday questioning whether another of Edwards' lawyers, Abbe Lowell of Washington, D.C., also has a potential conflict.
Lowell previously represented two potential witnesses in the case, including the widow of former Edwards national campaign finance chairman Fred Baron, who died in October 2008.
Lowell accompanied Lisa Blue Baron when she was questioned by FBI agents investigating Edwards and when she testified before the federal grand jury that later indicted the former candidate.
Like Mellon, Fred Baron provided cash to fly Hunter across the country on private jets and put her up at exclusive hotels and rented homes. Baron also provided his Aspen, Colo., vacation home for the use of Hunter and Andrew Young, the former Edwards aide enlisted to help keep the pregnant mistress away from the media. Young initially claimed paternity of the child.
Lowell also advised Harrison Hickman, a longtime political adviser and pollster for Edwards.
A statement issued by Lowell's law firm Monday said he would address questions of his potential conflict of interest with the court.
"We have discussed this issue with the government to its satisfaction; its inquiry to make a record is appropriate; and we will respond in a court filing," the statement said.
Michael Biesecker can be reached at twitter.com/mbieseck