RALEIGH, N.C. — Payments from a wealthy heiress to the Mellon fortune through a Monroe, N.C., interior decorator helped subsidize the cover-up of John Edwards' affair with Rielle Hunter.
The decorator, Bryan Huffman, eventually became the conduit for as much as $700,000 from Rachel "Bunny" Mellon – what the Edwards camp called "Bunny money" – to help cover the expenses of Rielle Hunter and Andrew Young, the aide who claimed to be the father of her baby.
Mellon's money was part of more than $1.5 million that Young told ABC News was used for the cover-up. He said the money paid for a coast-to-coast odyssey that included trips on private jets, expensive lodging and even a BMW for Hunter. Some of the money, he said, also came in cash from the late Fred Baron, a Texas lawyer and Edwards' friend.
The arrangement was necessary because John Edwards, a multi-millionaire, couldn't access his own bank accounts without alerting his wife, Elizabeth.
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Federal prosecutors in Raleigh are looking into whether Edwards misused campaign money to pay for the cover-up of his affair and the child he finally acknowledged is his.
Details of the affair, and costly efforts to conceal it, cover it up, were described this week in Young’s book “The Politician.” Young publicly described those efforts for the first time Friday night on ABC’s “20/20.”
In a statement earlier in the day, Edwards’ attorneys, Wade Smith of Raleigh and Jim Cooney of Charlotte, urged “extreme caution” with the claims.
“It is obvious that there are many allegations which are simply false,” they said in an e-mail. “It appears that Andrew Young is primarily motivated by financial gain and media attention.”
What Huffman calls his and Mellon's innocent role in the scandal first came to light in Young’s book.
“I knew nothing about what that money was used for, nothing about Rielle Hunter, nothing about the senator’s personal life or the child, (and) Bunny knew nothing about it,” Huffman said. “To have her get tainted by her connection to Sen. Edwards is very upsetting to me, because . Because I introduced them.”
Young writes that when Hunter found out she was pregnant in 2007, Edwards, a multi-millionaire, couldn’t access his own money “without his wife finding out.” So, Young’s book says, they scrambled for help.
Young approached Edwards’ former law partner David Kirby.
“I told him no,” Kirby said Friday.
So they turned to Mellon.
Now 99, she was the widow of billionaire philanthropist Paul Mellon and herself heir to the Listerine fortune. She’d been a close friend of Jackie Kennedy and helped design the White House Rose Garden.
Young writes that Mellon’s checks “were made as payment to Huffman so that she wouldn’t have to offer an explanation to the professionals who handled her accounts.
“These funds were gifts, entirely proper, and not subject to campaign finance laws. She did not know that the money was being used in part for Rielle.”
Young writes that Huffman sent him the checks, which he deposited into his account “to be used to keep Rielle happy and hidden from the media.” He told ABC News that Mellon’s checks amounted to $700,000.
While Young describes the money transfers as “entirely proper,” others aren’t so sure.
“Whenever people try to circumvent campaign finance laws, they often try to argue that it was a gift instead of a political contribution,” said Jack Knight, a former assistant U.S. attorney from Charlotte. “That’s the kind of thing that will certainly pique the interest of federal prosecutors in Raleigh.”
Huffman and Young have testified before the grand jury.
The Mellon connection might never have happened had Huffman not visited a church a few years ago that Mellon designed in Upperville, Va., in the shadow of the Blue Ridge mountains. Impressed, he wrote her a note. She replied with an invitation to lunch on her 4,000-acre estate.
Huffman learned she was interested in Edwards’ candidacy. Because Huffman’s sister was a law school classmate of Young’s, he called him.
As a result Mellon invited Edwards for tea at her farm. She went on to give the Edwards-related Alliance for a New America $3.48 million in 2008 and more to other groups tied to the then-Democratic presidential candidate.
Her attorney told the New York Times last year that when Young later told her Edwards needed money for personal use, she agreed.
Huffman said he agreed to forward the money to Young. Because he had to FedEx the money, Huffman said he actually lost money on the exchange. He said both he and Mellon are disappointed to be dragged into the scandal.
“She’s a fascinating person,” Huffman said. “And I just hate that she’s getting all this tawdry association at this point in her life. She’s been drawn into something that neither of us knew. She just thought he was going to be great for the country.”
Raleigh News & Observer staff writers Michael Biesecker and Eric Ferreri contributed to this report.