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David Perel

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John Edwards Courtroom Still No Place to Find the Truth

Posted: 05/08/2012 11:28 am

A lawyer from the elite Washington, D.C. firm of Williams & Connolly once told me, "When there's a murder in hell, you don't have angels as witnesses." Such is the axiomatic anxiety that now besets John Edwards' prosecutors as they rely on one inveterate liar, Andrew Young, to convict another.

Five years after I led a team of National Enquirer reporters and editors in a nearly 18-month investigation that exposed Edwards' affair and baby with Rielle Hunter, he is finally on trial, charged with improper use of campaign finance money stemming from the expensive attempt to cover up his scandal.

This is not the story of a tabloid's triumph -- we received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for our articles -- but a tale of systemic and personal failures, of grand selfishness disguised as loyalty and palpable disdain for voters and the presidency.

The testimony, tears and anguish that have filled the Greensboro, N.C., courtroom since late April are a distortion of the ultimate truth, an advocacy slanted version of events that defined, destroyed and desecrated lives and memories of the key players.

The truth that has not been told in the courtroom is harsh, a searing light that exposes not only the deep, craggy character fault lines of unsympathetic figures like Young, his wife Cheri and Hunter, but also illuminates tragic imperfections belonging to Edwards' victims, most notably his wife Elizabeth, who suffered more than anyone in the ordeal.

Many of the characters who have sat and will sit in the witness box had the chance to stop Edwards, to preserve the integrity of the system, but none did. And what you don't see at trial are scores more who had knowledge of the affair and hung up the phone or slammed the door when Enquirer reporters confronted them with the truth during the course of our reporting. Only one needed to step forward and acknowledge that our December 2007 exclusive featuring photographs of pregnant Rielle and detailing the affair and cover-up was correct. Only one needed to go to another news organization as an off-record source and admit it was true and Edwards' campaign would have been consumed in the inferno of his raging lies. No one did.

The Enquirer spoke to many Edwards' campaign aides. They all denied knowledge of the affair. We attempted to speak to Andrew and Cheri Young's relatives. None would cooperate. Friends of Hunter lied, people on the campaign trail disavowed all knowledge of the supposed affair and Hunter even denied her own identity when we finally confronted her.

People remained silent for different reasons. Loyalty to the campaign has been cited -- not wanting to be the one to blow up the campaign. Greed and the hope for personal gain motivated some. More disturbingly, the inaction can be seen as an indictment of a political system that is about only winning, a puzzle to be solved, one nation, under God, with cynicism for all.

In North Carolina on April 25 a smug John Edwards left the courthouse and said, "Oh the sun is out in more ways than one," after his lawyer's damaging cross examination of Andrew Young. It is almost laughable that he has retained his narcissistic arrogance after destroying so many lives, but events behind the scenes make it clear this is the armor he wears over a skin of insecurities. Edwards was not smug or smiling on July 22, 2008 when my reporters caught him leaving Hunter's room at the Beverly Hills Hilton at 2:40 a.m. At that moment he ran into a public bathroom when his elevator opened in the lobby and brought him face to face with an Enquirer reporter who asked him to comment on the affair and his paternity of Hunter's daughter.

Edwards' lawyer testified last week that the former candidate refused to sign an affidavit denying the affair and paternity of his daughter. Lost and missing from that testimony is that before Edwards could say no, I had already refused any attempt to "trade" the story for such an affidavit. Also not present in court testimony is my counter offer: Take a paternity test and the Enquirer would run the results no matter what they showed. That offer was not accepted, of course.

Edwards, Hunter and Young retained separate counsel in an attempt to stop the Enquirer's expose of the affair, the pregnancy and the money trail. None of them knew that for months a team of Enquirer reporters, living in Young's gated community, watched Hunter and Young daily and had knowledge of Hunter often dining at the Young's house. So when Andrew Young and his attorneys contended that HE was the father of Hunter's baby, incredulity was replaced by laughter from my team. Yes, we were supposed to believe that he brought his pregnant mistress home regularly for dinner with his wife and children.

Andrew Young had an abundance of audacity but not an equal amount of intelligence. Not only did he bring Hunter home for "family dinners" but in an attempt to ensure no paper trail led to Hunter, he registered her BMW in his name, a fact never before revealed. Once I had that information -- gleaned very early during the team's North Carolina stakeout -- it was obvious what we were watching unfold.

Contrite and repentant, Young explained his part in the Edwards' cover up last week to the jury by saying: "We believed in the causes. ... I wanted to help my friend be president."

But the Andrew Young confronted by Enquirer reporters at his house the day we sought pre-publication comment was not so sanguine, and there was no trace of his now retro-fitted morality. Instead he broke a stick in a threatening manner, called to his wife to "get the gun" and ordered the reporters off his property, while refusing to move his car, which blocked their vehicle. Forty-five minutes later, police determined the reporters had the right to knock on the door and that Young had prevented them from leaving.

Andrew's wife Cheri cried so hard on the witness stand last week that the proceedings were delayed. But we saw a different side of Cheri that day our reporters knocked on her door to seek comment. As our questions made it obvious the scheme was unraveled, Cheri grew belligerent and enraged and called 911, claiming the reporters were peeping in her windows. No tears of remorse that day, just fury at being caught in the lucrative and insidious plot to hide a presidential candidate's pregnant mistress.

While Edwards dismissed the Enquirer's December 2007 article as "tabloid trash" and effectively froze the mainstream media from reporting it, behind the scenes the story was a scud missile hitting the epicenter of his campaign.

Edwards launched into damage control with his two go-to weapons: money and lies. The man capable of facilitating both was his campaign chairman, Fred Baron.

Baron, now deceased, was a fearsome attorney and powerhouse with the DNC who, like most of the characters in this uniquely American political drama, eschewed every opportunity to tell the truth here. Testimony has revealed how he moved the Youngs and Hunter across the country after the Enquirer published the cover-up details. What has not come out in court yet is that our team of reporters traced them to California, where they all lived in the same house, a tragicomic situation filled with more absurd drama than any reality TV show.

Young continued to claim paternity as he shared that house with his wife, children and pregnant Rielle.

The Enquirer knew that Barron was an integral part of the cover-up, moving money to keep the Youngs and Hunter away from the press, all the time aware of Edwards' affair and likely paternity. He threatened to sue us if we implied any of his actions were illegal but what you won't hear in court is that when given the chance to tell the truth, Barron continued his lie, as an Enquirer reporter showed up at his Texas home giving him the opportunity to set the record straight in the face of overwhelming evidence. Barron refused and kicked the reporter off his property, continuing to funnel funds to Young, and publicly stating that the Enquirer and paparazzi were hounding Young's children at their school and photographed them on a playground, casting the publication in the role of victimizing the couple's innocent children with photographers. (For the record, the Enquirer never approached or photographed Young's children.)

I previously revealed that I brought in a mental health professional to profile Edwards in an attempt to predict his next moves. This led us to the understanding that despite being exposed by the Enquirer, he would continue to meet with Hunter, convinced that he had won the war because no other media outlet picked up the story.

You have not yet heard testimony that Edwards and Hunter met many times in early 2008. The Enquirer team tracked them but was always slightly behind, gathering details after the meeting. Pressure grew to report details of these meetings and vindicate our earlier report. Yet I knew from Edwards' profile that these reports would not rattle him, no matter how much detail they contained, and we would continue to be ignored.

So we waited until we could catch them in the act, not knowing if it would take days, weeks or years. It took the better part of a year until we caught him with Hunter in the Beverly Hills Hilton.

Even after being confronted at the hotel, Edwards refused to confirm the affair or paternity. In the ensuing weeks, following our profiler's advice that Edwards would tell the truth, or partial truth, only when there was no other option, I published a photograph of him holding Rielle's baby.

Unknown until now is the fact that we also sent a message to him through a back channel that led him to believe the Enquirer had Rielle's hotel room wired with cameras when he visited. We did not, but a recently released voice-mail from Baron to Andrew Young from Aug. 16, 2008 shows it is likely that the message was received. "We are now all convinced that our cellphones are being monitored," the lawyer said, alluding to "the other side" as being responsible. Paranoia was now rampant in Edwards' inner circle, passed back and forth until finally the man who now hoped to become Barack Obama's Attorney General gave a limited confession on ABC's Nightline, admitting to the affair with Hunter, but still denying paternity. Edwards tried to dictate the terms of that interview, still grasping for public power while privately destroying his wife Elizabeth whose greatest flaw, it appeared, was choosing a philandering husband.

How to handle Elizabeth's ancillary role in John's scandal was a topic of much debate as the Enquirer uncovered Edwards' deeds. A cancer victim and wronged wife, she was the ultimate sympathetic figure. But a sad truth was obvious to our team then and verified now: Elizabeth knew her husband was a liar and cheater but the crushing pressure of his personal betrayal kept her publicly silent while he continued his presidential run.

We wondered then -- and I still do now -- if Edwards had been elected would Elizabeth have stood by him? Testimony in court last week offered heartbreaking detail about the day the Enquirer first published an article about John's betrayal. Elizabeth ripped off her shirt and bra in public and screamed at her husband, "You don't see me," as aides hurried to cover her.

It is impossible not to feel her pain, to ache for her children. In December 2007, when the Enquirer followed its initial scoop with the first photograph of pregnant Rielle and explicit details of how Edwards and Young were hiding her in a North Carolina gated community, Elizabeth Edwards remained publicly silent because her husband put her in the ultimate no-win situation and she chose to protect her family's privacy. (Imagine this examination of campaign finance misconduct against a sitting president and the current trial and its players suddenly ascend in importance.)

I wrestled with how to treat Elizabeth Edwards' role in at the time we chased John and Rielle. A look back at our articles reveals a stunning gap of virtually no references to Elizabeth and what she did or did not know. This was intentional. We did not want to give John an opportunity to summon faux outrage and publicly brand the Enquirer as an enemy that victimized his wife; given his capacious ability to lie, this was highly likely.

Elizabeth is not on trial and I do not judge her but what about other people who knew or suspected the truth? No matter what the verdict for John Edwards in this trial, one thing is overwhelmingly obvious. As the Enquirer followed Rielle Hunter from New Jersey to North Carolina to California, exposing the candidate's darkest secret, many people, including aides, family and campaign workers, knew the truth and remained silent. These facts are immutable and the greater historical significance of how a presidential candidate can climb so close to high office from a foundation of lies -- already publicly exposed -- is an onerous obligation in need of posthumous examination.

The man who had lied to and manipulated so many was still in damage control mode even when he finally confessed to an affair on national TV. At that point he had no idea that months earlier Cheri Young had taken a 13-minute video of the house where Hunter was hidden in North Carolina, showing a list of possible baby names and other irrefutable evidence of the cover up.

The man who betrayed his wife and country was betrayed during his own attempt to hide the truth. He also had no idea that the mother of his out-of-wedlock child relished his marital woes, leaving a voice-mail for Andrew Young on Feb. 17 that said, "They have footage of it on ABC News World News Tonight, Obama leaving the house shaking his (John's) hand and um... Johnny and Elizabeth couldn't be further apart from each other. I mean, on either side of like of the driveway. "

Hunter, who is on the prosecution's witness list, laughed as she said it.

The lawyer from Williams & Connolly was right all those years ago: John Edwards turned his life and pursuit of higher office into a private hell that is now playing out in a courtroom where there are no angels as witnesses.

 
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