By Wade Rawlins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former presidential candidate John Edwards knew campaign finance law well enough to concoct a scheme to try to circumvent the law to hide his mistress, a prosecutor said as he and defense attorneys began closing arguments on Thursday in Edwards' federal trial on political corruption charges.
"Mr. Edwards clearly knew the law and decided to violate it to salvage his campaign," prosecutor Robert Higdon told jurors. "We believe overwhelming evidence has been presented that will allow you to convict Edwards on all counts."
Edwards, 58, is charged with six felony counts of violating federal election laws by soliciting illegal campaign donations to hide Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007 and 2008.
The donations came from lawyer Fred Baron, who served as his campaign finance chairman, and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.
Defense attorney Abbe Lowell, in closing arguments, described the one-term U.S. senator and two-time Democratic presidential candidate as a bad husband who lied to his family, but not a lawbreaker.
"As many are his moral wrongs, he has not committed a legal one," Lowell said. "There is not the remotest chance that John violated federal campaign laws, let alone felonies."
The closing arguments in the political corruption trial follow more than three weeks of testimony and the introduction of nearly 500 exhibits such as cell phone records and emails.
Jurors must decide whether Edwards - a top trial lawyer before he launched his political career - masterminded the funneling of more than $900,000 from the two wealthy political supporters to Edwards' campaign aide Andrew Young to hide Edwards' mistress.
"Andrew Young is not the manipulating mastermind the defense would have you believe," Higdon said. "You can easily conclude that it was John Edwards who was benefiting from all this.
"He accepted the monies from Mrs. Mellon and Mr. Baron for his campaign, and that is where there is a violation of law," Higdon said.
The Federal Election Campaign Act states that excess contributions are illegal if they are made for the purpose of influencing an election for federal office. Edwards' lawyers contend that law must be read strictly and jurors must find the contributions were solicited solely to influence the election.
Meanwhile, prosecutors say the law can be interpreted to mean contributions are illegal if a purpose for which they are sought is to influence an election outcome.
Edwards' attorneys acknowledged that Edwards knew about the $2,300 limit on contributions from individuals. But they have argued that the payments from Mellon and Baron were private gifts - not political contributions - that were made to support Hunter and to prevent Edwards' cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, from learning he had fathered a child with Hunter.
Elizabeth Edwards died in 2010.
Citing testimony by Young, Lowell recalled that Edwards assured Young at one point that he had consulted with campaign finance experts and that there was not a problem with Young depositing the checks from Mellon to support Hunter.
"That means he did not have an intent to violate the law," Lowell said.
"If what John Edwards did is a federal crime, we better build a lot more courthouses and jails," Lowell said.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan, Cynthia Johnston and Vicki Allen)