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Staffer Testifies Against Edwards At Trial

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Staffer Testifies Against Edwards At Trial

Law

Staffer Testifies Against Edwards At Trial

Staffer Testifies Against Edwards At Trial

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Campaign finance law isn't the most titillating topic. But the trial of John Edwards over alleged violations has been anything dry. On Wednesday, Edwards daughter, Cate, fled the courtroom in tears after intimate details were revealed about her parents' marital discord. Audie Cornish talks legal strategy with attorney and legal analyst Hampton Dellinger.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In North Carolina, there's a soap opera unfolding in a federal courtroom: marital discord, adultery, tears. Let's just say it's not your average trial for alleged campaign finance violations. This is the trial of John Edwards, accused of using money from a political donor to cover up an affair while he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. We called on Hampton Dellinger to help us square the tabloid nature of the trial with the serious issues it's trying to address.

He's a North Carolina lawyer and an election law expert who's been following the case. As he tells us, a parade of former Edwards' staffers has been called to the stand this week to tell the story of what happened during the campaign.

HAMPTON DELLINGER: The Edwards' staffers have really made the case about what a bad idea it was for Edwards politically to have anything to do with Rielle Hunter. They've also, I think, been able to establish that Elizabeth Edwards was well aware of the affair and fairly early on during the pivotal year of 2007, including its possibly continuing nature. And the government is trying to show that Edwards was an integral player, maybe the orchestrator, of the cover-up.

CORNISH: Why is it significant to establish that timeline? Why is it important to the government's case to prove that Elizabeth Edwards knew that her husband was having an affair during his presidential campaign?

DELLINGER: It's important to the government because a central component of Edwards' defense is that Edwards was trying to save his marriage, not try to save his candidacy with the cover-up of the affair. I think this may be one of those classic mixed motive cases - to borrow a concept from employment law. I think Edwards, the jury may well conclude, was trying to do both: retain the viability of his candidacy, as well as maintaining his marriage to Elizabeth Edwards.

CORNISH: I see. So, one is arguing that he was trying to save his campaign and therefore the money he got to cover-up his affair was a political donation. And Edwards is trying to say the flipside; that, no, I was trying to save my family and that that was personal money.

DELLINGER: That's right. And the more the government can establish that Elizabeth Edwards knew about the affair, the earlier they can establish that she knew about it, the more I think they'll be able to make their case that these were, in essence, monies used to maintain the viability of Edwards' candidacy.

The problem for the government is there's never been a case like this. This is not a quid pro quo, Blagojevich or Abramoff, you know, Senate seat or earmark for sale. This was not money that went to pay for TV ads or polls or yard signs, even. This is money that went to third parties from third parties who were Edwards' friends as well as campaign supporters. And so, it's a challenge for the government.

CORNISH: At the same time, Hampton, the details that have come out about, for instance, a public kind of meltdown, fight that the Edwards had over this affair, it seems, you know, ugly and tawdry. And what point does it help the prosecution make its case?

DELLINGER: Well, that's right. The last thing the prosecution wants to do is make Edwards, the defendant, a sympathetic figure. But Edwards' adult daughter, Cate - age 30, a Harvard law grad - has been in court every day, stoic, along with her grandparents, Edwards' elderly parents. And there's no question that there is a human toll to this case. There are innocent victims like his daughter. He also has two young children by Elizabeth Edwards, for whom he's the only living parent.

And so, there is that risk for the government that they're going to focus too much on the facts and not on whether Edwards had any reason to know that this cover-up, even if it took place as they allege, would violate the Federal Election Campaign Act.

CORNISH: Hampton Dellinger, thank you so much for explaining this to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DELLINGER: I did my best, you're welcome.

CORNISH: Hampton Dellinger is a lawyer in North Carolina. He's been following the trial of John Edwards.

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