By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - A government witness on Monday supported former Senator John Edwards' claim that he didn't know about payments used to conceal his pregnant mistress during his 2008 presidential bid, and the money wasn't intended as a campaign contribution.
Heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon's attorney testified there was "no doubt" that the wealthy supporter said the $725,000 she provided to an Edwards aide were not political donations.
Rather, Mellon was told by the aide that Edwards needed money for an unspecified "personal need" as he chased the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, said attorney Alex Forger.
"She was pleased to be able to help," Forger said. "She was not exactly sure what that was."
Edwards, 58, is standing trial in Greensboro, North Carolina, on six counts of election law violations. Federal prosecutors say he directed his close aide, Andrew Young, to accept more than $900,000 in illegal campaign contributions to hide the Democratic candidate's extramarital affair from voters.
The former North Carolina senator faces prison time if convicted of charges including conspiring to solicit the money, receiving more than the $2,300 allowed from any one donor, and failing to report the payments as contributions.
Edwards' defense says he has committed sins but no crimes. According to his lawyers, he did not know about the money from Mellon and donor Fred Baron, never instructed Young to get it and never received any of it.
The second week of the campaign finance trial ended on Friday with a cliffhanger when Forger said a lawyer who was then representing Edwards told him in December 2008 that Edwards acknowledged Mellon's money "was for his benefit."
Forger elaborated on that statement as the third week of the trial got under way on Monday, but did not put to rest questions about exactly when Edwards became aware of the payments.
EDWARDS DENIED KNOWLEDGE OF CHECKS
Forger said when he spoke with Edwards' lawyer, the former candidate's attorneys had learned federal authorities were investigating allegations of illegal campaign funds and criminal tax issues arising out of the donor money Young received.
Young later was granted immunity by the government and now is a key witness against Edwards.
But Forger said the former senator and others previously had indicated Edwards did not know about the payments from Mellon.
In August 2008, as Forger was investigating the nature of Mellon's surreptitious payments, he spoke with the friend who had been the conduit for the checks between the heiress and Andrew Young and his wife.
The friend, interior decorator Bryan Huffman, said Andrew Young had suggested that Mellon characterize the funds she gave to benefit Edwards as either a gift to Huffman or Young, according to Forger's testimony.
Huffman "said the senator did not or should not know about it," Forger said.
Mellon's lawyer said Edwards denied knowing about the money from the heiress when the two men discussed it in August 2008. "Senator Edwards said he was unaware and did not know about the checks," Forger said.
The government accuses Edwards of soliciting the money because he knew revelations that he had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, would doom his campaign.
Forger said Mellon wanted to see Edwards, a two-time presidential candidate and the Democrats' 2004 vice presidential nominee, elected to the White House. In addition to the money at issue in the trial, she gave more than $6 million to his political organizations.
"But that was not the sole reason of her support," her lawyer said.
The heiress, now 101 and physically unable to testify, was widowed and lonely when she became friends with Edwards, Forger said.
She grew fond of him and stayed in touch after his unsuccessful campaign. She regrets that Edwards was ordered by the courts to stay away from her after his indictment last June, her lawyer said.
"She liked him as an individual, as a person. It wasn't because he was running for elected office," Forger said. "This happened to be what his objective was at the time."
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)