GREENSBORO, N.C. — The federal judge overseeing the criminal trial of John Edwards will sharply curtail the testimony of a key defense witness who could have raised doubt about whether the former presidential candidate broke campaign finance laws.
Edwards' lawyers had intended to call former Federal Election Commission chairman Scott E. Thomas as their first witness Monday morning, but prosecutors objected.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Eagles sent the jury home early so she could listen as Thomas answered questions to preview his intended testimony.
Thomas said it was his opinion that nearly $1 million secretly provided by two campaign donors and used to hide the Democrat's then-pregnant mistress while he sought the White House in 2008 did not qualify as federal campaign contributions under existing federal law.
"These are intensely personal, by their very nature," said Thomas, who served on the FEC from 1986 to 2006 after appointments by Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "In my view this is a clear-cut case that the payments were not campaign contributions."
Thomas cited past cases before the FEC to support his position, including a $96,000 payment in 2008 by the parents of then-Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada to his then-mistress that was later determined not to have violated the law.
Thomas also said federal election law was so complicated that reasonable and knowledgeable people can disagree about whether something qualifies as a political contribution. To win a conviction under the law, prosecutors must show not only that Edwards knew about the scheme but also that he knew he was violating the law.
But the jury deciding Edwards' fate will not hear any of that testimony, which supports the defense position that the secret payments benefiting Edwards' then-mistress Rielle Hunter were gifts from his wealthy friends, not political contributions intended to aide his presidential candidacy.
Judge Eagles agreed with prosecutors that Thomas' personal opinions and past FEC rulings are irrelevant to their criminal prosecution of Edwards.
She said the former commissioner made what amounts to a closing argument for the defense and that campaign finance statutes weren't as confusing as Thomas made them out to be.
"It just doesn't seem that complicated to me," Eagles said. "It doesn't seem to me the jury needs the help."
Eagles said she would allow Thomas to take the stand, but barred nearly all of his expected testimony.
Lead defense lawyer Abbe Lowell appeared incredulous as he asked Eagles for further explanation of her ruling, which he suggested flew in the face of established case law. He warned that the limits amounted to "reversible error" that might be overturned on appeal.
The judge responded by chastising Lowell for what she perceived as his disrespectful tone.
"That sounds like you are arguing with me," Eagles said sternly. She reminded Lowell, a well-known Washington defense attorney, that she was not the judge in those other cases.
The exchange came after 14 days of testimony from prosecution witnesses who recounted the lurid details of the extramarital affair carried on by Edwards while his wife Elizabeth battled terminal cancer; she died in late 2010.
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts including conspiracy to violate the Federal Election Campaign Act, accepting contributions that well exceeded campaign finance limits, and filing false campaign-finance statements. Edwards faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Edwards' attorneys began his defense Monday by attempting to shift the focus away from the sex scandal to the technical issue of whether Edwards' alleged behavior violated campaign finance laws.
Even the federal government appears split on the issue.
The FEC previously decided that the money used in the cover-up of Edwards' affair were not campaign contributions.
Unable to call Thomas as their first witness, the defense presented Lora Haggard, the chief financial officer of the John Edwards for President committee and the campaign's top staffer in charge of complying with FEC regulations.
She testified that the money from heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Edwards campaign finance chairman Fred Baron, now deceased, has still never been reported on the campaign's required disclosure reports; even after Edwards was charged, FEC auditors said it didn't need to be.
She also said Edwards was never involved in formulating, filling out or filing campaign finance reports that were sent to the FEC. In the sixth count of his indictment, Edwards is accused of causing his campaign to file a false report through deceit.
"We never gave him a report to review," Haggard said. "He had no input."
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday by playing a tape of a 2008 national television interview in which the Democrat repeatedly lied about his extramarital affair and denied fathering Hunter's baby. Earlier testimony from a parade of former aides and advisers also showed an unappealing side of Edwards, with some casting him as a liar and bad husband.
The defense has not yet indicted whether Edwards or Hunter will take the stand.
Before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 1998, Edwards made a fortune as a personal injury lawyer renowned for his ability to sway jurors. But his testimony would expose himself to a likely withering cross-examination about his past lies and personal failings.
Lowell said that on Tuesday the defense expects to call Edwards' 30-year-old daughter, lawyer Cate Edwards, to the witness stand. She has been accompanying him during the trial. Edwards is also a single parent to two younger children.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck