By Colleen Jenkins
GREENSBORO, North Carolina (Reuters) - A disillusioned campaign aide testified on Tuesday about the cross-country trek he took with former Senator John Edwards' pregnant mistress to hide her from the media during Edwards' failed 2008 presidential bid.
Andrew Young, the federal government's key witness in the criminal campaign finance case against Edwards, told jurors that he agreed to falsely claim paternity of the woman's child at Edwards' request.
Young and his family then accompanied the mistress, Rielle Hunter, to luxury locations in Florida, Colorado and California, riding in private jets and staying at fancy hotels paid for by a campaign donor, Young said.
Prosecutors say Edwards, 58, manipulated Young into soliciting more than $900,000 from two wealthy donors to conceal the affair and pregnancy, and avoid dooming his campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Edwards, then a married father of three, repeatedly denied that he was cheating on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth. The government says the extramarital affair lasted from February 2006 to August 2008.
Edwards faces possible prison time if convicted of federal election law violations, including charges of conspiracy, accepting illegal campaign contributions and making false statements.
On Tuesday, Young told jurors he often coordinated three-way phone calls between himself, Edwards and Hunter to keep the affair concealed from Elizabeth Edwards, who died in 2010. Hunter also met up with John Edwards at hotels on the campaign trail, Young said.
Hunter for a time worked as a videographer for Edwards' campaign, but she lost her job after Edwards' wife found out about the affair.
Young said he and Edwards discussed where they could get money to support Hunter and eventually settled on heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, an Edwards admirer who is now 101.
'WE NEEDED HER HELP'
Mellon had offered to help Edwards, a two-time presidential hopeful who was the Democrats' vice presidential nominee in 2004, with campaign expenses after he took a beating in the media for his expensive haircuts.
Young said he did not tell her the money would be used to cover expenses for Edwards' mistress, who had threatened to go public about her relationship with the candidate.
"I told (Mellon) that we had a non-campaign expense that would benefit Mr. Edwards, and we needed her help," Young said.
Mellon eventually wrote seven checks totaling $725,000 to her interior decorator. The decorator then sent the checks to Young's wife to co-sign using her maiden name, Young said.
In the checks' memo lines, Mellon used descriptions such as "chairs" and "antique Charleston table," government exhibits showed.
Edwards says he did not know about the money from Mellon, but Young said the two men discussed seeking the payments and whether the arrangement using the decorator and Young's wife was legitimate for a presidential campaign.
Young said Edwards, a successful trial lawyer in North Carolina before entering politics, called the payments "completely legal." The candidate suggested a $5,000 monthly allowance for Hunter, Young testified.
"It felt and smelled wrong," said Young, who was granted immunity by the government. "But in the end, he knew more about the law than we did."
Young said Edwards directed him to enlist financial help from campaign finance chairman Fred Baron in December 2007 after a visibly pregnant Hunter said she had been surrounded by reporters as she left a North Carolina grocery store.
Prosecutors played recordings of voice mail messages that Edwards left for Young as the campaign aide and Hunter sprinted around the country on the all-expenses paid trip from Baron, who spent nearly $200,000 on the flights and accommodations.
Young said he saved the voice mails in case he one day needed to corroborate what had happened.
"If I didn't have these, nobody would believe me ... about the cover-up," he said.
He also saved a note Baron had mailed with $1,000 cash to the Youngs and Hunter. "Old Chinese saying: Use cash, not credit cards," it read.
Edwards' defense is expected to go after Young's credibility during cross-examination, which is likely to begin on Wednesday.
Young has admitted there are falsehoods in his 2010 book, "The Politician," about Edwards and efforts to cover up the affair.
During opening statements on Monday, the defense said Young pocketed most of the donor money and used it to help bankroll a $1.5 million home for his family.
Young thought Edwards was his "ticket to the top," the defense said. When things soured, he recruited others to testify against Edwards in the criminal prosecution, according to the defense.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu, Jackie Frank and Philip Barbara)