US court allows Edwards to hire mistress's lawyers

March 15, 2012 - 6:35 PM

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — Former presidential candidate John Edwards got his wish Thursday and is changing his defense team ahead of his criminal trial on charges of campaign finance violations, hiring the same attorneys who once helped his mistress in a lawsuit over the couple's alleged sex tape.

The former U.S. senator from North Carolina testified under oath that he understood a jury might puzzle over the fact that lawyers Alan Duncan and Allison Van Laningham would be representing him after previously representing his mistress, Rielle Hunter.

Edwards faces charges that he broke federal campaign finance laws, allegedly using nearly $1 million from two wealthy donors to hide the pregnant mistress and prevent a scandal from erupting as he campaigned for the White House in 2008. He has pleaded not guilty.

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Eagles told Edwards that shaking up his defense team was likely causing him stress, something the former senator's doctor said in a private letter to the judge Edwards should avoid to protect his health. The judge asked Edwards whether he was taking any narcotics or other medications that might fog his judgment before trial.

"I'm taking a bunch of medication. No narcotics, to answer that question," said Edwards, who appeared sharp and relaxed. "If I have memory problems, they're not because of the medicine."

Edwards was a successful trial attorney before winning a U.S. Senate seat in his first political campaign, becoming the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee and then running for the White House in 2007 and 2008. But he gave no immediate reason for hiring the lawyers as his trial is scheduled to open in Eagles' courtroom on April 12.

Federal prosecutors said they've made no final decisions, but chances are good they will call Hunter as a witness at the trial. Hunter was given immunity from prosecution for her testimony to a grand jury in 2009. Prosecutors handed Eagles a copy of the immunity deal Thursday, which the judge scanned and noted the government "didn't agree not to prosecute" on all issues.

Based on what Hunter has told them so far, prosecutors said in a recent court filing they expect she will testify that Edwards was aware of funds that were provided as part of what they said was a scheme designed to conceal their affair and the pregnancy from the media and the public. They also said she indicated that Edwards was aware of and condoned the role of many of the participants in the alleged scheme.

Duncan and Van Laningham represented Hunter in her lawsuit against former Edwards aide Andrew Young. That case ended last month with a settlement that ordered all copies of the alleged sex tape destroyed.

Duncan and Van Laningham have not represented Hunter on criminal issues linked to the Edwards case. Hunter signed a waiver dropping any objections to Edwards hiring the new lawyers, Van Laningham said.

Eagles decided that if the government calls Hunter to testify, defense cross-examination would have to be handled by other Edwards attorneys.

"It just minimizes the possibility that a former relationship is discussed in front of the jury," the judge said. "I want to be sure we don't have any problems at trial," the judge said.

Earlier, federal prosecutor Robert Higdon raised questions about whether Duncan and Van Laningham would have divided loyalties if testimony from Hunter and Edwards conflicted, or whether they could use insider knowledge of Hunter.

Prosecutors previously alleged that another Edwards defense lawyer, Abbe Lowell, had a potential conflict of interest because he had previously represented Fred Baron, a former Edwards campaign finance chairman. Baron has since died, but Lowell had also represented his wife, Lisa Blue, last year before a grand jury investigating Edwards.

Eagles ruled Lowell could remain on the defense team but could not cross examine Blue if she is called to the witness stand.

Eagles on Thursday allowed well-known Charlotte defense lawyer Jim Cooney to withdraw from Edwards' defense team.

Edwards' defense team has seen significant turnover since his arrest in June.

Former White House Counsel Gregory Craig and former Associate White House Counsel Cliff Sloan, who began representing Edwards in March 2010, resigned in August. Raleigh defense lawyer Wade Smith withdrew in October after federal prosecutors suggested he had a conflict of interest because he might be called to testify about a 2009 conversation he had with a financial adviser for Bunny Mellon. Authorities say the 101-year-old socialite provided much of the money used to support Hunter.