By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - The campaign aide who says former U.S. Senator John Edwards solicited nearly $1 million in illegal political contributions admitted on Thursday that he accepted more than $300,000 from a wealthy donor after Edwards ended his 2008 presidential bid.
Andrew Young, the federal government's key witness in its campaign finance case against Edwards, said he used the money from supporter Fred Baron to help build a $1.5 million home.
Edwards, 58, faces possible prison time if convicted of conspiring to solicit money from Baron and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, receiving more than the $2,300 allowed from any one donor and failing to report the payments as contributions.
Prosecutors say the one-term senator from North Carolina directed Young to request more than $900,000 from the two donors to help shield the candidate's pregnant mistress from the media during his unsuccessful campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
But his defense says the donors' payments were meant to conceal the affair from the candidate's cancer-stricken wife, not to influence the election, and thus did not violate election laws.
Furthermore, if jurors follow the money trail, the defense contents, they will see how Young used Edwards' personal troubles for financial gain.
Young acknowledged that in spring 2008, after Edwards had suspended his presidential campaign, Baron wired $325,000 to Young's builder to help complete construction on the aide's family home.
That payment was supposed to be reimbursement for a couple hundred thousand dollars in expenses that Young told Baron he had incurred while helping to hide Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter, who gave birth in February 2008.
"Were you trying to suggest to him that you were in the hole for that much?" defense attorney Abbe Lowell said.
"I think that's fair to say, yes sir," Young testified on the fourth day of the trial in Greensboro, North Carolina.
But under further questioning, Young said he included expenses already covered by Mellon. Young said he did not tell Baron he was also getting money from Mellon, who wrote checks totaling $725,000 that were deposited by Young's wife.
WITNESS' CREDIBILITY QUESTIONED
Baron was paying for a $20,000-a-month rental home in Santa Barbara, California, for the aide's family and Hunter when the Youngs ordered pricey upgrades to their home being built in North Carolina, adding a pool, home theater system, finished attic and more square footage.
"We lost our sense of perspective," Young said. "The house got more and more extravagant."
Lowell has spent a day and a half grilling Young's account of the affair cover-up and donor payments, portraying the former aide as both a liar and the mastermind behind the plot.
The attorney pointed out discrepancies in Young's statements over the years about when he learned Hunter was pregnant and how much money Mellon offered to spend to help Edwards, a two-time presidential hopeful who was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004.
Lowell presented phone records that showed calls often were made between Young's and Mellon's phone numbers in the days prior to the dates on her checks.
"These checks just didn't flow, they were a result of your asking Mrs. Mellon for them on those occasions, isn't that right?" Lowell asked.
"No, sir," said Young, who wrote a tell-all book about Edwards and efforts to keep the affair hidden.
Young said he spoke frequently with Mellon, who told him to contact her whenever there was a need for money to help Edwards. Young said he never told Mellon that the funds were used to pay for Hunter's medical care and living expenses.
Lowell suggested it was Young's idea to falsely claim paternity of Hunter's child in order to make Edwards more indebted to him. Young says Edwards, then a married father of three, asked him to do it in December 2007 to protect the candidate's image as a devoted family man.
"It was putting a fire out," Young said on Thursday.
Lowell showed transcripts of voicemail messages from Edwards to Young from December 2007 and January 2008, the time period leading up to the important Iowa caucuses.
"He does not mention the fact that the Iowa caucuses are coming up in a week," Lowell said. "The concern he expresses is about Elizabeth, isn't it?"
(Reporting By Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Philip Barbara)