GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — An interior designer testified Thursday about his role in funneling secret money from a reclusive millionaire to an aide of John Edwards' in a scheme that included checks labeled for fake antique furniture purchases.
Bryan Huffman described, for example, receiving a $100,000 check from 101-year-old heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon with "Antique Charleston Table" written in the memo line. It was part of an elaborate ruse to hide $725,000 intended for Edwards from the Mellon family's money managers by sending checks to the designer for a fantasy furniture business.
The designer then endorsed the checks and sent them on to a fundraiser for Edwards' 2008 campaign.
A prosecutor asked Huffman if Mellon was aware of a federal law that then limited individual political contributions to $2,300 per election cycle.
"She thought it was a little low," Huffman, 48, replied to laughter. "Our furniture business did not really involve furniture. It was money for Sen. Edwards."
Edwards has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to campaign finance violations involving about $1 million provided by Mellon and another donor. Some of the money was used to hide the Democratic candidate's pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008. He faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted.
Huffman took the stand after several of Edwards' former aides testified about their knowledge or suspicions of the married candidate's affair with Rielle Hunter, a videographer seen going to and from his hotel rooms on campaign stops.
After nearly two weeks of tense testimony from witnesses in somber suits, the interior designer breezed into the windowless, oak-paneled courtroom in a yellow checked blazer with matching yellow tie and pocket square. His mouth perpetually poised in a smile, he spoke in a drawl suited for the sitting parlor of an antebellum mansion.
Huffman said he met Mellon in 2004, after he visited the small town near her estate, wrote her a note and received an invitation to visit.
Huffman recounted driving up a long winding driveway, past a guard, to Mellon's home in Virginia horse country.
"Well, it's nice, obviously, but nothing ostentatious," he said. "Nothing gold and velvet about it, just a nice, rich farmhouse."
The two hit it off and the heiress asked Huffman to become "evening friends," a familiar voice to call before bed. Their conversations ranged "from the state of the world to how much her plant had grown in the pot."
Huffman said Mellon had become enamored of the handsome and youthful senator from North Carolina, who reminded her of John Kennedy. He made it his mission to arrange an introduction. Huffman's sister had gone to law school with Edwards' close aide, Andrew Young, and he called to invite Edwards to Mellon's estate.
Huffman was on hand in December 2005 when Edwards arrived at Mellon's home for what the campaign called a "prospecting" visit.
At dusk, Edwards lifted off from the airstrip on Mellon's estate in her private jet, headed to Chapel Hill. "There goes the next president of the United States," Huffman recounted her saying.
In the spring of 2006, Edwards was heavily criticized for spending campaign funds on $400 haircuts. Incensed, Mellon sent Young a handwritten note requesting that any future expenses for the senator's personal needs be sent to her lawyer in New York, so that they could be paid "without government restrictions."
Young previously testified the note arrived about the same time Edwards was struggling to find money to provide for his mistress, Rielle Hunter, without his vigilant wife finding out.
In early June, Huffman said Mellon called and told him she'd sent a $10,000 check by "fast mail," her term for FedEx. She instructed him to cash the check and give the money to Young, who had asked her for up to $600,000 for a "non-campaign purpose." Several more checks followed, each increasing in size.