GREENSBORO, N.C. — The wife of an ex-aide to John Edwards broke down on the witness stand Monday as she recounted how the candidate asked the couple to hide an affair he was having and justified using wealthy donors' money to do it.
Testifying at Edwards' campaign corruption trial, Cheri Young said she huddled around a phone in her Chapel Hill home during December 2007 with her husband, Andrew Young, and Edwards' pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter.
On the call, Edwards emphasized the need to preserve his campaign and keep the affair from his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, Cheri Young said. It was a couple weeks before the 2008 Iowa caucuses, and two suspicious tabloid reporters had already tracked Hunter from a doctor's appointment to the Youngs' home.
Edwards made the plan sound "as if it was for the good of the country," Cheri Young said.
Asked by a prosecutor why she went along with it, Young put her hands together, pressed them to her chin and bowed her head as if in prayer. As she began to weep, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles dismissed the jury to give her time to compose herself.
About 25 feet away, Edwards sat back in his chair and put two fingers to his pursed lips. As Young dabbed her tears with a tissue, the former U.S. senator glanced at his watch.
Once the jury returned, Young answered the question.
"I felt like everything had been dumped in my lap," she said. "Everybody was on board but me. ... I didn't want the campaign to explode and for it to be my fault. I ultimately decided to live with a lie."
During the call, Edwards suggested that it would only be a one-day story if Andrew Young took responsibility for the baby.
"'Nobody cares about two staffers having an affair,'" Young recalled Edwards saying.
Hunter had earlier been paid as a videographer by one of the organizations linked with Edwards, who is accused of deliberately using money from two wealthy donors to hide Hunter as he sought the White House.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign-finance violations. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.
At issue are payments from a wealthy Texas lawyer, Fred Baron, who served as Edwards' campaign-finance chairman and an elderly heiress, Rachel "Bunny" Mellon. Andrew Young, who testified last week under an immunity agreement, has acknowledged that he kept about $1 million in payments from the two campaign supporters.
Earlier in her testimony, Cheri Young said she had doubts about taking the "Bunny money" and using it to cover up the affair. She said Edwards hatched the plan to have her deposit the money into an account controlled by her and her husband. Concerned about violating the federal $2,300 limit on individual campaign contributions, Young said she reluctantly agreed after insisting on hearing Edwards himself say the scheme was legal.
"I heard Mr. John Edwards tell me on the phone that he checked with the campaign lawyers and that this was legal," she said.
Cheri Young took the witness stand late Friday after a full week of testimony by her husband, a former fundraiser and close aide to Edwards.
Though Andrew Young testified last week that the couple spent much of the money provided by the donors to build his family's $1.5 million home, the couple also supported the pregnant mistress out of their checking account, paying for her medical care, a BMW, a $2,700-a-month rental house and a monthly allowance of thousands of dollars in cash.
Cheri Young said she agreed to handle the money because if the public found out about Edwards' affair with Hunter, the campaign and her husband's job were in danger.
"I cannot tell you how disgusted I was. Why me? This was my husband's fight," she said. "Now I had to fix it."
After reporters for the National Enquirer tracked Hunter down in December 2007 and the Youngs agreed for Andrew to issue a public statement accepting paternity, they embarked with the pregnant mistress on a cross-country odyssey of private jets and luxury retreats, all paid for by Baron.
Eventually they settled into a $20,000-a-month rental mansion Baron paid for in Santa Barbara, Calif. Cheri Young said Hunter chose the location because that was where her "healer and spiritual advisor" lived.
Cheri Young said Hunter also had her write checks totaling thousands of dollars to the New Age healer, Bob McGovern, whom the mistress said she wanted to be with her when she gave birth.
There was also tension between the Youngs' family and Hunter.
"We were not allowed to touch the baby," Cheri Young testified. "My kids were not allowed anywhere they might breathe on the baby."
Edwards had also stopped returning Andrew's calls, prompting the Youngs to fly to Texas to meet Baron at his home. They met with Baron and his wife, Lisa Blue.
Cheri Young said she told Baron she wanted to go home, but he told them they could never return to North Carolina or live close to the politician. Baron's wife, a lawyer and psychologist, had recently visited the Edwardses and she advised them to steer clear of Elizabeth, who was angry with the Youngs over their role in her husband's affair.
"'Mrs. Edwards is not well," Young recounted Blue as saying. "'I'm a doctor and she is not mentally healthy. There is a very good chance she would be a harm to you and your family.'"
Blue is expected to testify later in the trial. Baron died of cancer in October 2008.
After a mid-afternoon break, a lawyer for Cheri Young told the judge she was suffering from a migraine. The judge dismissed the jury early, telling them Young was expected to retake the stand Tuesday.
After Young completes her testimony, the next witness called by prosecutors could be Josh Brumberger, a young aide who was with Edwards on the night in 2006 when Hunter walked up to the candidate in the bar of a New York hotel and introduced herself. Brumberger was later pushed aside by Edwards after he tried to dissuade his boss from continuing with the affair.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck
On the Net: Exhibits and trial information: http://www.ncmd.uscourts.gov/trial-information-usa-v-johnny-reid-edwards