March 23, 2012 5:19 PM

John Edwards, a Man of Many Lawyers, Shuffles Legal Team Once Again

Posted by Brian Baxter

Not since Joe Francis have we seen someone shake up their legal roster as often as John Edwards, who is scrambling to cobble together a defense team as federal prosecutors raise conflict-of-interest concerns about his counsel of choice.

Womble Carlyle Sandridge Rice is the latest firm to drop Edwards as a client, as the former Democratic presidential candidate gets set for trial next month on charges he violated federal campaign finance laws. The trial has already been delayed several times.

In an 11-page memorandum and order handed down Wednesday, U.S. district court judge Catherine Eagles approved Edwards’s hire of new attorneys from North Carolina firm Smith Moore Leatherwood, who replace Charlotte-based Womble Carlyle partners James Cooney III and Claire Rauscher.

John Edwards Campaign Trail

Edwards, who once could count on the political donations of many an Am Law 200 attorney, initially turned to lawyers from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher Flom, Womble Carlyle, and Raleigh’s Tharrington Smith for his defense team, according to our previous reports.

But the Skadden squad led by former White House counsel Gregory Craig withdrew last August, noting that its representation was limited to Edwards’s initial court appearances. Edwards then hired Chadbourne Parke white-collar defense and litigation head Abbe Lowell as lead counsel.

Federal prosecutors claim that Lowell himself is conflicted out of cross-examining Lisa Blue, the widow of late trial lawyer and former Edwards campaign chairman Fred Baron. Blue testified before a federal grand jury probing Edwards and could be called again as a government witness next month. Lowell previously represented both Blue and Baron, who died of a rare blood disorder in October 2008.

Before his death, Baron, a founder of Dallas’s Baron Budd, told sibling publication Texas Lawyer that he paid former Edwards aide Andrew Young hush money and relocation expenses for Rielle Hunter, a woman with whom Edwards has admitted having an extramarital affair. Hunter later told GQ that she and Edwards had a child together—a story first broken by the National Enquirer. (Click here for a list of the key figures in the Edwards case.)

Edwards, 58, is accused of violating federal campaign finance laws by tapping his campaign for $925,000 in political donations to pay for Hunter’s relocation in order to conceal the illicit relationship while he pursued the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Hunter, who was given an immunity deal by federal prosecutors this month, pursued separate litigation against Edwards’s ex-aide Young in order to retrieve an alleged sex tape of her and Edwards he once had in his possession.

While not a party to Hunter’s invasion of privacy suit against Young, Edwards was subpoenaed as a witness in the litigation, and turned to Womble Carlyle for counsel in the matter. Hunter and Young settled their dispute in February, with the tape in question being scheduled for destruction.

Hunter was represented in the litigation with Young by Smith Moore partners Alan Duncan and Allison Van Laningham, both of whom sought to be added to Edwards’s legal team for his upcoming criminal case. That drew the ire of federal prosecutors, who claimed the Smith Moore lawyers could have a conflict.

But Eagles ruled from the bench last week that Duncan and Van Laningham could join Edwards’s defense team, noting that Hunter had signed a waiver and has long had separate criminal counsel, Michael Critchley, Sr., of Roseland, New Jersey-based Critchley, Kinum Vazquez. Portions of Hunter’s testimony at trial—she is scheduled to be cross-examined by Chadbourne’s Lowell—are expected to be supportive of  Edwards.

As for Womble Carlyle, Edwards’s move to hire Duncan and Van Laningham marked the end of the firm’s representation of the one-time U.S. senator from North Carolina. Cooney, who represented a lead defendant turned law student in the controversial Duke lacrosse rape case, notified the court earlier this month of his firm’s intention to withdraw from the case.

Cooney declined The Am Law Daily’s request for comment on Friday about his reason for dropping out of the case, but noted it wasn’t because of any conflict. Conflicts did, however, claim another longtime Edwards lawyer, Tharrington Smith name partner Wade Smith, who, like Cooney, also had a role in the Duke case.

Smith filed his filed his notice of withdrawal representing Edwards in October after federal prosecutors suggested he might have a conflict of interest. Smith could be called to testify about a 2009 phone call he had with a financial adviser for Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, an elderly socialite who provided the bulk of the money the Edwards campaign used to pay off Hunter back in 2008.

Edwards once worked as an associate at Smith’s firm before becoming a high-profile plaintiffs’ lawyer in North Carolina. (In his 2003 book Four Trials, Edwards recounts the biggest cases in his career, including a $25 million personal injury verdict against Sta-Rite Industries in 1997, one of the largest awards in North Carolina history.)

Edwards’s upcoming criminal trial—jury selection is tentatively scheduled for April 12—isn’t the only legal matter he has had to contend with recently. Edwards and his new lawyers from Smith Moore are denying a report that he was a client of New York’s so-called “Soccer Mom Madam” while running for president in 2008.

And in a 223-page report released last week, the Federal Election Commission ordered Edwards’s now-defunct presidential campaign to repay $2.1 million to the U.S. Treasury Department for excess funds dispersed during the 2008 election cycle.

Edwards is being represented by Washington, D.C.’s Utrecht Phillips in the FEC inquiry.

Photo: Peter Smith, Wikimedia Commons

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