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Opening arguments set to begin in Edwards trial

By Michael Biesecker

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In an Oct. 27, 2011 file photo, former U.S. Sen. and presidential candidate John Edwards, left, speaks to the media with attorney Abbe Lowell, right, as he leaves the federal court in Greensboro, N.C. Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the John Edwards trial were poised Monday April 23, 2011 to begin making their case to jurors on whether the former presidential candidate violated federal campaign finance laws.

Chuck Burton, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Prosecutors and defense lawyers in the John Edwards trial were poised to begin making their case to jurors on whether the former presidential candidate violated federal campaign finance laws.

Opening arguments were to begin Monday in Greensboro, N.C.

Edwards, 58, pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to nearly $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy supporters. Much of the money was used to hide the then-married politician's pregnant mistress during his 2008 White House campaign.

Prosecutors are expected to argue that Edwards masterminded a conspiracy to conceal his affair. Edwards' lawyers contend the payments were gifts from friends intent on keeping the candidate's wife from finding out about the mistress, Rielle Hunter, and her baby. Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010 after battling cancer.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles, who was appointed in 2010 by President Barack Obama, will preside. She said she expects the proceedings to last about six weeks.

A key issue will be whether Edwards knew about the payments made on his behalf by his national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a now-101-year-old heiress and socialite. Each had already given Edwards' campaign the maximum $2,300 individual contribution allowed by federal law.

Edwards denies having known about the money, which paid for private jets, luxury hotels and Hunter's medical care. Prosecutors will seek to prove he sought and directed the payments to cover up his affair, protect his public image as a "family man" and keep his presidential hopes viable.

Abbe Lowell, the well-known Washington lawyer who is representing Edwards, has said that even had Edwards known about the secret payments, his actions wouldn't amount to a crime under federal law. Lowell has said in court that the government's case relies on flawed legal reasoning, that the grand jury process was tainted and that the Republican federal prosecutor who led the investigation was motivated by partisanship.

Lowell has derided what he calls the government's "crazy" interpretation of federal law whereby money that was never handled by the candidate nor deposited in a campaign account is being defined as campaign contributions.

Much of the money at issue was funneled to Andrew Young, a former campaign aide once so close to Edwards that Andrews initially claimed paternity of his boss's illegitimate child. Young and his wife invited the pregnant Hunter to live in their home near Chapel Hill and later embarked with her on a cross-country odyssey as they sought to elude tabloid reporters trying to expose the candidate's extramarital affair.

Young later fell out with Edwards and wrote an unflattering tell-all book, "The Politician." Young and Hunter recently ended a two-year legal battle over ownership of a sex tape the mistress recorded with Edwards during the campaign, agreeing to a settlement that dictates that copies of the video will be destroyed.

Young is expected to be a witness for the prosecution, while the defense is likely to call Hunter to testify. Two of the lawyers who represented Hunter in her civil suit against the former aide joined Edwards' legal team last month. After years of adamant public denials, Edwards acknowledged paternity of Hunter's daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, in 2010. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.

It has not yet been decided whether Edwards, a former trial lawyer once renowned for his ability to charm jurors, will testify in his own defense.

Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at: www.twitter.com/mbieseck

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