GREENSBORO, N.C. – John Edwards drove erratically in a borrowed black SUV down rural North Carolina roads, as his once-trusted aide tried to keep up. The former presidential contender pulled into a secluded dead-end road and beckoned for the aide, Andrew Young, to get in.
Young, testifying Wednesday at his longtime boss' corruption trial, noticed Edwards seemed nervous. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead even though the air conditioner was running.
Edwards confessed that life inside the nearby gated estate he shared with a cancer-stricken wife angered by his affair had become "a living hell." Young said Edwards then shocked him by denying any knowledge of $725,000 in secret checks from an elderly heiress used to buy his mistress' silence.
"I didn't know about these, did you?" Edwards asked, according to Young.
Worried he was being taped, Young lied and said no.
The August 2008 exchange, also recounted in Young's tell-all book about the Edwards scandal, reads as if pulled from a political thriller. It was Young's third straight day of testimony as the government sought to prove Edwards masterminded a scheme to use nearly $1 million from wealthy campaign donors to conceal his affair with Rielle Hunter from voters as he sought the White House. Edwards' attorney sought to point out inconsistencies in Young's testimony and other accounts of his story during cross-examination Wednesday.
Young had falsely claimed paternity of Edwards' daughter with Hunter as the politician dismissed the stories as "tabloid trash" while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
During the 2008 meeting in his car, Young told Edwards he had kept evidence of the cover-up, including voicemails, emails and an intimate tape made by the woman. He said he threatened to go public if Edwards' didn't come clean about the fact the baby was his.
"You can't hurt me, Andrew," Edwards told Young as he opened the door to get out, Young said. "You can't hurt me."
The former one-term U.S. senator from North Carolina has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.
Edwards denies knowing about the secret money, much of which flowed into accounts controlled by Young and his wife, Cheri. Edwards' lawyers claim the Youngs siphoned off the bulk of the money to pay for their $1.5 million house near Chapel Hill.
Edwards has often stared directly at his former aide, seated about 25 feet away on the witness stand. Young has not once looked in Edwards' direction.
Young testified that when Edwards asked him in December 2007 to claim paternity, the candidate pledged to set the record straight after the baby was born.
Yet months passed with no call from Edwards, and Young said he and his wife had grown tired of sharing a house with the increasingly-demanding Hunter. Through an intermediary, Young demanded a face-to-face meeting with the senator, who was then in talks with Barack Obama's campaign about becoming the Democratic vice presidential nominee.
Edwards asked Young to keep the secret for longer at a June 18, 2008, meeting in a hotel room near Washington, Young testified. The men shouted and nearly came to blows before Edwards was able to calm Young down, the ex-aide testified.
"He said he loved me and that he knew that I knew he would never abandon me," Young said.
Prosecutors allege Edwards directed Young to start giving money to Hunter in 2007 after she threatened to go to the media and expose the affair. Edwards suggested asking elderly heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, who had already given generously to the campaign, Young testified.
Prosecutors showed the jury checks from Mellon written to her interior designer, who would then endorse them and send them to Andrew and his wife, Cheri. Starting in June 2007, Mellon would eventually provide checks totaling $725,000, funds that Young said Edwards and he called the "Bunny money."
Telling Mellon the money would be used for a "non-campaign" expense, Young said she offered to provide $1.2 million over time to help. Under federal law, donors are limited to giving a maximum of $2,300 per election cycle.
On Wednesday, Young testified that while in the Washington hotel room, he overheard Edwards' half of a phone conversation with Mellon's interior designer, Bryan Huffman, who was involved in funneling the money to hide Hunter.
"You're a great American. The four of us are going to do great things for the country," Young said quoting Edwards, who was apparently referring to himself, the designer, Baron and Young.
Edwards' political hopes dimmed that July in 2007 when tabloid reporters photographed him at a California hotel with his mistress and baby daughter, Frances Quinn Hunter, who was then 5 months old. Despite the grainy photos, Young said Edwards moved ahead with a planned overnight visit to Mellon's Virginia estate, where he was to ask the heiress to provide another $50 million to establish an anti-poverty foundation.
"He said he could be to poverty what Al Gore was to the environment," Young testified.
When he arrived, Edwards was confronted by Mellon's lawyer and accountant, who questioned him about the checks that had gone to Huffman and then to Young. That killed the plan for the foundation.
Edwards then went on national television and again denied having an affair with Hunter or fathering her child.
It would be another two years before Edwards acknowledged he had fathered the child. The girl, now 4, lives with her mother in Charlotte.
During cross-examination, Edwards attorney Abbe Lowell peppered the former aide with questions about subtle inconsistences between Young's testimony and accounts of his story in grand jury testimony, media accounts and his book. One juror appeared to fall asleep during the third hour of cross-examination.
Lowell asked Young if he had once tried to be like Edwards, going to the same dentist, hiring his boss' former homebuilder to construct his dream house. He asked whether Young had fallen in love with Edwards.
"A lot of people in the country did," Young replied.
"Did you fall out of love with him?" Lowell asked.
"I did, yes sir," Young replied.
"You really hate him, don't you?" asked the lawyer.
"I have mixed feelings," the former aide said flatly, looking straight ahead.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck.