By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - Ex-staffers recounted tawdry details of former U.S. Senator John Edwards' affair during his failed 2008 presidential bid on Wednesday, but said little to tie him to allegations that he used illegal campaign contributions to hide his pregnant mistress.
The focus halfway through the second week of Edwards' federal campaign finance trial was squarely on his dalliance with a videographer and the effect revelations about that relationship had on his cancer-stricken wife.
Ex-campaign adviser Christina Reynolds described how at an airport ahead of a political trip, Elizabeth Edwards grew more and more vocal and upset and took off her shirt and bra in the presence of staffers, while telling her husband something to the effect of "you don't see me anymore."
Elizabeth Edwards became emotional on the way to the airport on the trip, "pawing" at her husband to mock the way she envisioned he might be fooling around with his mistress, another former staffer, Matthew Nelson, testified.
"Is this what you do together when you're in the car in New York City?" Edwards' wife asked, according to Nelson, after an October 2007 tabloid article reported that her husband was having an affair.
John Edwards, 58, is accused of conspiring to obtain nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from two wealthy donors to conceal his affair with Rielle Hunter from voters as he chased the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
With his adult daughter, Cate, and his parents listening in a Greensboro, North Carolina, courtroom, Edwards looked upset by some of the testimony, at one point covering his face with his hand and later shaking his head.
Reynolds said Edwards' staff had been warned the tabloid article might be coming and discussed having Hunter issue a denial. Hunter, however, wanted to release a flippant statement saying "that she would like to respond, but she'd been abducted by aliens," Reynolds said.
The government says Edwards, at the time a married father of three, sought the campaign money, knowing that revelations that he was cheating on his wife and had impregnated Hunter would doom his campaign.
The defense says Edwards did not break the law because the payments were meant as non-campaign gifts to help hide the affair and pregnancy from Elizabeth Edwards, who died in 2010, and not to influence the election.
FIRST MEETING WITH MELLON
Two former staffers said they were with Edwards in late 2005 when he first met heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon at her grand estate in Virginia.
Mellon would later write $725,000 in checks that the government says were used to help shield Hunter from the media during the campaign. Edwards' defense argues that another former campaign staffer, Andrew Young, arranged the financial scheme and used much of the money for his own financial benefit.
"I remember it was Mr. Young who had brought Mrs. Mellon to our attention" as a potential donor, ex-staffer Josh Brumberger said.
But Brumberger, and Nelson, both said they did not remember any specific contributions being discussed at that initial meeting. They said Mellon mostly talked about her friendship with members of the Kennedy political dynasty and how Edwards reminded her of them.
A few months later, in February 2006, Brumberger said he was with Edwards the night that his boss first met Hunter, who approached the men and introduced herself as they were having a drink at the Regency Hotel in New York City.
The young staffer said he was surprised when Hunter was subsequently hired as a videographer to capture Edwards' behind-the-scenes political movements in the months leading up to his declaration of his candidacy for president.
Brumberger testified that Edwards effectively fired him after the staffer voiced concerns to colleagues about his boss' behavior around Hunter.
Edwards asked for Hunter, who Brumberger thought seemed "a little nutty," to be given health insurance, even though she was only a consultant. The candidate would also sometimes carry her bags for her, the former aide testified.
"I was concerned that Mr. Edwards was treating Ms. Hunter different than the rest of the staff," Brumberger said. "He was just more engaged and flirtatious with her."
Brumberger said he also thought Hunter's work was "shoddy and unprofessional" and didn't make Edwards look presidential.
Brumberger said he shared his apprehensions with Edwards on a couple occasions, particularly after spotting Hunter wearing "overnight apparel" one morning in August 2006 at an Austin, Texas hotel. Hunter had just stepped out of an elevator that had access to Edwards' hotel room, the ex-aide said.
When Edwards glossed over Brumberger's concerns and did not change his behavior, Brumberger said he shared his worries with two colleagues.
That prompted Edwards to confront him in a heated exchange at an airport lounge ahead of a trip to China in October 2006, Brumberger said. Edwards said Brumberger should have come to him directly if he suspected he was having a sexual relationship with Hunter, the former staffer said.
"He didn't trust me anymore, he said," Brumberger testified.
Brumberger said that was the end of his working relationship with Edwards, although he later attended presidential fundraisers for the candidate.
(Reporting By Colleen Jenkins; Editing by David Brunnstrom)