Bob Leverone, Associated Press
GREENSBORO, N.C. — The judge overseeing the criminal trial of John Edwards will sharply curtail the testimony of a key witness for the defense who could raise 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.
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 pregnant mistress while he sought the White House in 2008 did not qualify as 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 Reagan, Bush and 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 of his position, including a $96,000 payment by the parents of former Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada to his mistress that was determined not to violate the law.
Thomas also said FEC 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' mistress 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 closing argument for the defense and that campaign finance statutes weren't as confusing as Thomas made out.
"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 coldly. She reminded Lowell 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 struggled against terminal cancer. He has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations that could put him in prison for 30 years if convicted.
Edwards' defense team began its case Monday by attempting to shift the focus away from the sex scandal to the technical issue of whether Edwards' alleged behavior really 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.
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