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 U.S. 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."
Eagles asked both parties to return on Thursday for additional questions, but she didn't indicate whether she intended to rule on any of the motions at that time.
Edwards sat quietly at the defense table as his lawyer 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, Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel "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."
Edwards' defense team also questioned to role of former U.S. Attorney George Holding, who supervised a more than 2-year investigation of Edwards utilizing more than 50 FBI agents and an estimated three-dozen federal lawyers. Lowell said Holding, Republican appointed by President Bush to oversee prosecutions in the state's eastern district, was motivated by partisan political gain to take down Edwards.
Holding also contributed money to Edwards' opponents in the 1998 U.S. Senate race and in 2004, when Edwards was the Democratic nominee for vice president. Before the "ink was even dry on the indictment" against Edwards, Lowell said, Holding had announced his candidacy for Congress in 2012.
Prosecutors retorted that the final decision to prosecute Edwards was made in Washington under a Democratic administration, not in Raleigh.
Though it is not clear when Eagles might rule on the defense's dismissal motions, she did rule on a motion from prosecutors questioning whether Lowell had a conflict of interest in the case. The Washington lawyer previously represented two potential witnesses in the case when they testified before a federal grand jury, including the widow of Baron, who died in 2008.
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 and the paternity of his child on national television, rose from the table, placed his hand on a Bible and swore to tell the truth.
After Edwards expressed his desire for Lowell to continue representing him, the judge asked whether he 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.
As he left the federal courthouse, about 30 protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement marched down the sidewalk across the street. A man with a bullhorn heckled the former presidential candidate, who grew rich as a personal injury lawyer, saying he was a "washed-up capitalist."
As he made his way toward a scrum of television cameras, Edwards turned to one of his defense lawyers.
"I'm not a washed-up anything," he said.
Follow staff writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck