By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, N.C., April 23 (Reuters) - Prosecutors in the criminal campaign finance case against former U.S. Senator John Edwards described him on Monday as a manipulative politician who refused to let his affair or his mistress' pregnancy sideline his presidential ambitions.
But Edwards' defense asked jurors to "follow the money," saying the nearly $1 million in illegal campaign funds he is accused of secretly accepting as he sought the 2008 Democratic nomination instead went to a former campaign aide who used the money to pay for his $1.5 million house.
Attorneys gave opening statements at the federal courthouse in Greensboro, North Carolina, the state where Edwards grew up and was elected as a U.S. Senator in 1998. The two-time presidential hopeful was the Democrats' vice-presidential nominee in 2004.
He was indicted in North Carolina last year on six counts, including charges of conspiracy, taking illegal campaign contributions and making false statements. Each count carries a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Attorneys on Monday picked a racially diverse jury of seven women and nine men to hear the case. Only 12 of them ultimately will decide whether Edwards is guilty, but the four alternates will not know who they are until deliberations begin.
Dozens of journalists from national and local media organizations crammed into the courtroom to watch the start of the trial, so many that not all were able to fit inside. Edwards' parents and eldest daughter, Cate, also attended.
Prosecutors say Edwards, 58, was aware of the payments from the wealthy donors, and the money was meant to influence the federal election. Had it been publicly revealed that Edwards had an affair with a campaign worker who became pregnant, Edwards knew his presidential candidacy and his marriage would be doomed, prosecutor David Harbach said.
Harbach said the affair began in February 2006 when Edwards met Rielle Hunter in a New York City bar.
The indictment says their liaison lasted more than two years, during which time Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, was battling the cancer that ultimately killed her in 2010.
"This affair was a gamble with exceedingly high stakes," Harbach told jurors. "He made a choice to break the law."
'MANY SINS BUT NO CRIMES'
Harbach said Edwards directed his loyal campaign aide, Andrew Young, to seek money from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and campaign finance chairman Fred Baron to help pay for Hunter's living and medical expenses and to keep her out of the public eye.
Hunter briefly worked as a videographer for Edwards' campaign until Elizabeth Edwards ordered her husband to fire the woman, Harbach said. The affair continued, but Edwards could not use his own money to cover Hunter's expenses without his wife finding out, the prosecutor said.
Edwards later asked Young to falsely claim paternity of the child, according to Harbach.
"Anything to preserve his chances to be president," Harbach said.
Edwards' attorneys say the former candidate did not know about the money, never instructed Young to get it and never received any of it.
"John Edwards is a man who has committed many sins but no crimes," said defense attorney Allison Van Laningham. "John Edwards is not afraid of the truth. He welcomes it."
Van Laningham said the donors' payments were not meant as political contributions but rather as personal gifts to help a friend. Mellon and Baron were trying to prevent Edwards from being publicly humiliated, not influence the federal election, she said.
Both of the donors paid gift taxes on the money, the attorney said.
Van Laningham said though some of the cash went to Hunter, most of it landed in the pockets of Young and his wife, Cheri. In addition to paying for their new home, the couple used the money to buy jewelry, electronics and vacations, the attorney said.
Andrew Young, who was granted immunity by the government, wrote a tell-all book about Edwards and the affair, and also worked to recruit others to testify against his former boss, Van Laningham said.
"Since he can no longer make money being for John Edwards, he wants to make money being against him," Van Laningham said. "Follow the money and find the truth."
Young, the government's key witness, began his testimony Monday and is expected to return to the stand on Tuesday. He told jurors how he met Edwards during the Senate campaign and became his right-hand man for the two failed presidential bids.
Harbach admitted to jurors that Young's "hands aren't exactly clean either" and said they "will not like" the former aide.
Young recently contacted three trial witnesses to discuss their testimony, including a female co-worker he is accused of having a one-night stand with in 2007, U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said with the jury out of the courtroom.
"It does kind of feed into the idea that he's an operator," said Elon University law professor Catherine Dunham. "It's kind of sleazy-sounding, but it's not illegal." (Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Daniel Trotta, Jackie Frank and Lisa Shumaker)