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Heiress Bunny Mellon plays unlikely role in Edwards sex scandal

By Carol Eisenberg

January 29, 2010 at 9:08am

A few weeks before former presidential candidate John Edwards came clean to the world about fathering an out-of-wedlock child with his campaign videographer Rielle Hunter, he made a special visit to see Rachel Lowe Lambert Lloyd Mellon at her estate in Virginia.

Mellon, the 99-year-old widow of the philanthropist and banking heir Paul Mellon, had been one of the biggest donors to Edwards’ presidential campaign. Along with the late Fred Baron, Edwards’ longtime friend and finance chairman who died of cancer last year, “Bunny” Mellon, as her friends call her, also provided money which was used to resettle Edwards’ mistress in California and pay her bills, according to Andrew Young, the former Edwards aide who once claimed to be the father of Hunter’s baby. Young has since recanted the paternity story and has written a tell-all book about the scandal.

How a society doyenne and close friend of the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis became involved in the Edwards scandal - and why the politician visited her a month before publicly admitting that he fathered his mistress’ child – remains a mystery, especially since a federal grand jury in Raleigh, NC, is probing possible criminal charges against him related to illicit use of campaign funds.

Unlike Baron, Mellon did not know the candidate personally when she first contributed to his campaign. Nor had she been involved in a presidential election effort in decades.

Bunny Mellon
Bunny Mellon

Bunny Mellon is the eldest child of Gerard Barnes Lambert, a founder of Warner-Lambert (now part of Pfizer) whose claim to fame was marketing his father’s invention of Listerine by making bad breath a social disgrace. Thanks in part to her father’s success, she was wealthy way before she ever met and married banking heir Paul Mellon in 1948 – a second marriage for both.

An art collector, horticulturalist, garden designer and member of the International Best Dressed List, Mellon has led a life, like her husband’s, that seemed to revolve around art, horses and high society.

The couple entertained British royalty at their farm in Virginia. She was also a longtime friend of John and Jacqueline Kennedy, advising the former First Lady on fine arts and antiques during her restoration of the White House.

In 1961, also at the first lady’s request, Mellon redesigned the White House Rose Garden and began work on the White House’s East Garden. After John Kennedy’s assassination, Lady Bird Johnson asked Mellon to complete work on the East Garden, which was dedicated in 1965 as the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden.

Mellon has declined to give any interviews about her involvement in Edwards’ campaign, but friends and family members have been quoted as saying she is active and lucid.

Her longtime attorney, Alexander Forger, who was also a close friend of the Kennedys, told the Raleigh News and Observer that Mellon was impressed with Edwards when he first ran for vice president in 2004.

When Edwards began his subsequent campaign for president in 2005 and 2006, Forger said she began to write checks to support him. The total that Mellon contributed to the campaign is unknown. But the records of one group, the Alliance for a New America, a 527 group tied to Edwards’ campaign, received a check of $3.48 million from her investment trust, Oak Spring Farms LLC.

That trust is administered by Forger, who was an early supporter of John Edwards. Forger is a well-known trust attorney and also headed the Legal Services Corporation during Bill Clinton’s administration.

At some point, Mellon was approached about making money available for Edwards’ personal use. Her lawyers have reportedly spoken to prosecutors probing use of campaign funds, but it is unknown whether she has been interviewed. In his new book, Young says the money was used to buy Hunter a $28,000 BMW and a $2,900-a-month home to rent near Chapel Hill, NC.

“Bunny’s checks, written for many hundreds of thousands of dollars, were made as payments to her decorator, Bryan Huffman, so that she wouldn’t have to offer an explanation to the professionals who handled her accounts,” Young writes.

Just a few weeks before his public announcement of paternity, Edwards made the trip to Mellon’s farm in Upperville, VA, on her private plane - while the grand jury continued its probe of his finances. He has declined to discuss the purpose of the visit to Mellon. But the timing has drawn criticism from some former prosecutors.

Charlotte lawyer Ken Bell, a former federal prosecutor, told The Charlotte Observer that Edwards’ flight “would create a danger of being accused of trying to influence a witness or obstruct justice. It’s dangerous and perhaps inadvisable, but not necessarily illegal.”

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