Politics & Government

Who's the Edwards friend who paid woman to leave?

There were few people closer to John Edwards during his presidential campaigns than Fred Baron, a renowned Texas trial lawyer who evolved into one of the Democratic Party's key fundraisers.

Baron, who made his fortune as a celebrated litigator on asbestos-injury cases before turning his attention to Democratic presidential tickets, leased his private jet to Edwards' campaign and claimed a partial ownership in a Southern Village home in Chapel Hill near the candidate's campaign offices.

The Texan was part of Edwards' inner circle of advisers.

But when it came to one key financial decision, Baron said he chose to keep the former senator out of the loop.

This weekend, after Edwards confessed to having an affair with Rielle Hunter, a video producer with whom he had been linked romantically for months in supermarket tabloids, Baron stepped forward with a disclosure of his own.

Baron, chairman of Edwards' 2004 and 2008 finance committee, said he, without Edwards' knowledge, had paid for Hunter and another campaign aide, Andrew Young, who has claimed paternity of Hunter's child, to leave Chapel Hill because they were being hounded by tabloids.

Edwards said he knew nothing about the payments, nor had he told anybody to make them.

"I made a decision on my own, without talking to Edwards or anybody, to try to help them move to a community or to try to get away from those folks," Baron told The Dallas Morning News on Friday.

Baron told the Dallas newspaper that he used his own money, not campaign finance funds, without disclosing the sum that he gave Hunter.

In an e-mail response to The News & Observer on Saturday, Baron declined to comment further.

But the payments raise questions about money paid to Hunter through Edwards' political action committee.

It all started in a N.Y. bar

Edwards and Hunter initially met each other sometime during the winter of 2006 in a New York bar, according to published reports. The first check cut to Hunter's film company, Midline Groove Productions, was written on July 5, 2006, for $12,500, according to campaign finance reports.

Midline Groove Productions was incorporated in Delaware on June 30, 2006, according to business records.

In a four-month span, Edwards' political action committee paid $100,000 to Hunter's newly formed video production company for four Web videos. That was followed by two smaller payments totaling $14,461 from Edwards' PAC, the last one coming on April 1, 2007.

It was unclear why the campaign stopped paying Midline.

It also was unclear what happened in late October 2007, when the company was listed as inactive.

Hunter has not responded to repeated requests from The News & Observer for comment. But she and Young worked under Baron during Edwards' campaign.

Baron, 61, a past president of the national Association of Trial Lawyers, has emerged as a key fundraiser for the Democratic Party and its presidential candidates. He has been credited with giving millions to help rebuild the state Democratic Party in Texas in recent years.

In 2006, he set up the Texas Democratic Trust and has contributed at least $1.7 million to that fund.

Jay Harvey, past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said he wasn't surprised Baron would use his own money to help Hunter and Young.

"Fred's the kind of guy that's very helpful to friends. He's just a big-hearted guy," Harvey said Saturday night. "When I heard [his statement], I didn't put any black-heartedness on Fred, who was concerned about what these staffers were going through."

As a trial lawyer, Baron was best known for his success representing plaintiffs in asbestos-exposure lawsuits. His former firm, Baron & Budd, was one of the largest firms in the country representing victims of toxic and chemical exposure. Critics of his firm's aggressive tactics questioned at times the firm's role in seeking payment in asbestos litigation for plaintiffs.

In 2006, the National Law Journal named Baron one of the "100 Most Influential Lawyers in the U.S."