Michael Biesecker

GREENSBORO, N.C.: John Edwards drove erratically in a borrowed black SUV down rural North Carolina roads, as his once-trusted aide tried to keep up. The former presidential contender pulled into a secluded dead-end road and beckoned for the aide, Andrew Young, to get in.

Young, testifying Wednesday at his longtime boss’ corruption trial, noticed Edwards seemed nervous. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead even though the air conditioner was running.

Edwards confessed that life inside the nearby gated estate he shared with a cancer-stricken wife angered by his affair had become “a living hell.” Young said Edwards then shocked him by denying any knowledge of $725,000 in secret checks from an elderly heiress used to buy his mistress’ silence.

“I didn’t know about these, did you?” Edwards asked, according to Young.

Worried he was being taped, Young lied and said no.

The August 2008 exchange, also recounted in Young’s tell-all book about the Edwards scandal, reads as if pulled from a political thriller. It was Young’s third straight day of testimony as the government sought to prove Edwards masterminded a scheme to use nearly $1 million from wealthy campaign donors to conceal his affair with Rielle Hunter from voters as he sought the White House. Edwards’ attorney sought to point out inconsistencies in Young’s testimony and other accounts of his story during cross-examination Wednesday.

Young had falsely claimed paternity of Edwards’ daughter with Hunter as the politician dismissed the stories as “tabloid trash” while campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire.

During the 2008 meeting in his car, Young told Edwards he had kept evidence of the cover-up, including voice mails, emails and an intimate tape made by the woman. He said he threatened to go public if Edwards’ didn’t come clean about the fact the baby was his.

“You can’t hurt me, Andrew,” Edwards told Young as he opened the door to get out, Young said. “You can’t hurt me.”

The former one-term U.S. senator from North Carolina has pleaded not guilty to six counts related to campaign finance violations. He faces 30 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted on all counts.

Edwards denies knowing about the secret money, much of which flowed into accounts controlled by Young and his wife, Cheri. Edwards’ lawyers claim the Youngs siphoned off the bulk of the money to pay for their $1.5 million house near Chapel Hill.

Edwards has often stared directly at his former aide, seated about 25 feet away on the witness stand. Young has not once looked in Edwards’ direction.