By Colleen Jenkins
Greensboro, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former Senator John Edwards said he had "known all along" that a wealthy donor was supporting his pregnant mistress during his 2008 run for president, the ex-candidate's speechwriter testified on Tuesday in his campaign finance trial.
But Edwards said he didn't know the details of donor Fred Baron's financial support and never asked him for the money, according to Wendy Button, who wrote speeches for Edwards during his unsuccessful 2004 and 2008 presidential bids.
Edwards, 58, is accused of violating federal election laws by soliciting more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions from Baron and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon as he chased the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The federal government says the one-term North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee sought the money to hide his affair with mistress Rielle Hunter, knowing revelations that he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife would destroy his campaign.
Edwards long denied having an affair and child with Hunter. He allowed campaign aide Andrew Young to falsely claim paternity of the baby girl born in February 2008 and did not publicly take responsibility until nearly two years after his daughter's birth.
On Tuesday, Button detailed conversations she had with Edwards in July 2009 about whether he should issue a statement saying he had fathered Hunter's child.
Button said she urged her former boss to reveal the truth after she saw news reports about the tell-all book Young was proposing to write. During an initial phone call, she said Edwards told her that he had wanted to tell the truth since November 2008 but had been hampered by things at home.
"He acknowledged that Quinn was his daughter and that he'd always known she was his daughter," Button testified. "He said that it was wrong for him to deny her."
During the series of calls that followed, Button said Edwards told her that other friends had helped out after he learned that Hunter was pregnant.
Because gift taxes were paid on the money and no bribes were involved, Edwards said there was nothing illegal about the payments, according to Button.
The government says the money should have been reported as political donations because it was meant to keep Edwards' image and candidacy intact. The defense argues the payments were from one private third party to another and should not be characterized as campaign contributions.
Mellon's money went into the personal accounts of Young and his wife and was used to help cover Hunter's living and medical expenses. Baron paid for private flights and luxury accommodations as the Youngs and Hunter spent months on the run to keep the media from finding out about Edwards' affair.
Button said Edwards told her at the time that he had only recently learned of Mellon's payments, and he believed that Andrew Young tried to extort the heiress.
Ultimately, Edwards didn't want to address Baron's payments in the statement Button was helping the former candidate craft, she said.
"For legal and practical purposes, we needed to take it out," Button said Edwards told her.
Edwards did not admit paternity in public until January 2010, though it was unclear from testimony on Tuesday what caused that delay. Button will return to the stand on Wednesday for more questioning by prosecutors and the defense.
The prosecution has indicated it plans to rest its case by Thursday, after nearly three weeks of testimony. Hunter is listed as a possible government witness, but prosecutors have not indicated whether they will call her to testify.
Button said she asked Edwards in July 2009 how he would respond to a press question about whether he loved Hunter. The speechwriter said the former senator replied, "Yes, it's complicated."
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)