By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Former U.S. Senator John Edwards' defense on Wednesday accused an ex-aide of lying about critical facts in the federal campaign finance prosecution stemming from Edwards' failed 2008 presidential bid.
Andrew Young, who wrote a tell-all book about efforts to hide Edwards' pregnant mistress during the campaign, is now the government's key witness. He denied being untruthful, but admitted having described his former boss as "despicable."
"You really hate him, don't you?" defense attorney Abbe Lowell asked.
"I have mixed feelings," said Young, who was granted immunity by the government in exchange for his cooperation and truthful testimony.
Young and his family spent months on the run helping to shield Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter from the media as the candidate, then a married father of three, sought the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
At Edwards' request, Young, who also was married, falsely claimed paternity of Hunter's child and solicited more than $900,000 from two wealthy donors to conceal the affair and pregnancy and avoid destroying Edwards' campaign, Young said.
Edwards, 58, faces possible prison time if convicted of federal election law violations, including charges of conspiracy, accepting illegal campaign contributions and making false statements.
He is standing trial in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state where he was elected as a senator in 1998 after a successful career as a trial lawyer.
Edwards and Young once were close friends. But as the cross-examination of Young got underway on Wednesday, the defense attacked the former campaign aide's character and credibility, aiming to poke holes in his version of events.
Lowell accused Young of exaggerating stories about Hunter to help sell his 2010 book, "The Politician." The attorney said Young made up other details entirely.
Lowell pointed out multiple discrepancies between Young's testimony, past public appearances and the book, which Young already has admitted contains falsehoods.
The former aide disagreed that he had used Edwards' affair and political downfall to secure financial success and prestige after his hopes of riding Edwards' coattails to the White House were dashed.
'YOU CAN'T HURT ME'
Earlier on Wednesday, Young described to jurors Edwards' response when Young threatened to expose him during a final, contentious encounter in August 2008.
"You can't hurt me, Andrew," Edwards said, according to Young's testimony. "You can't hurt me."
Young said the conversation took place on a country road in North Carolina near the former senator's home. As the two men sat in an SUV off the road, Edwards denied knowing anything about the payments from the two donors, according to Young.
"He was very nervous, and he was sweating," Young testified. "He was acting very oddly. It was surreal."
Edwards, twice a presidential candidate and the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004, shook his head at times during Young's testimony.
Young said one of the wealthy donors, Fred Baron, told him Young's role in helping to conceal Hunter from the public was crucial to Edwards' political ambitions.
Edwards had repeatedly denied reports that he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, who died in 2010.
Young and his family traveled with Hunter to luxury locations in Florida, Colorado and California, riding in private jets and staying at fancy hotels and homes paid for by Baron. Young said Hunter, who gave birth to a daughter in February 2008, used the assumed name Jaya James.
Hunter for a time had worked as a videographer for Edwards' campaign but lost her job after Elizabeth Edwards found out about the affair, Young said.
The defense disputed that account, saying Hunter's contract simply ended and she was not an employee of the official campaign.
Young said he went along with the plan to get money from Baron and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon because he believed John Edwards should be president. After Edwards dropped out of the race, Young still hoped to get a job at a foundation Edwards wanted to create to tackle poverty issues.
But he grew angry when Edwards refused to come clean about fathering a child with Hunter and clear Young's name. Young said his reputation was badly damaged, hurting his chances for future employment.
At his final meeting with Edwards, Young said he threatened to reveal the truth if Edwards did not do it himself. Prosecutors presented voicemail recordings and emails that Young saved to back his account of the cover-up.
(Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Lisa Shumaker)