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Former aide is first witness at Edwards' trial

Andrew Young was once much more than an aide to John Edwards.

The linchpin of the government's criminal case against the former presidential candidate spent long hours driving to and from political events with the rising Democratic star. They attended college basketball games together to root for the Tar Heels and buddied around at Edwards' beach house.

"We were just North Carolina boys and had a lot in common," Young testified Monday. The men were so close that when Edwards got his mistress pregnant in 2007, the married Young publicly claimed paternity of his boss' unborn child.

The former aide was the first witness called by federal prosecutors Monday following opening statements at Edwards' criminal trial.

Prosecutors allege that Edwards masterminded a conspiracy to use nearly $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy donors to help hide his pregnant mistress as he sought the White House in 2008.

Edwards, 58, has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts related to alleged violations of federal campaign finance laws.

"It wasn't just a marriage on the line," prosecutor David Harbach said in his opening statement. "If the affair went public, it would destroy his chance of becoming president, and he knew it He made a choice to break the law."

Edwards stared intently at Young as his former confidant testified. In nearly two hours of talking about Edwards, Young never looked in his direction.

Edwards and his defense team allege that much of the money at issue in the case was siphoned off by Young and his wife to pay for a $1.5 million house finished in 2008.

"Follow the money," defense lawyer Allison Van Laningham urged jurors in her opening statement. "John Edwards did not get any of this money."

Edwards' lawyers contend the payments were gifts from friends intent on keeping the candidate's wife from finding out about the affair. Elizabeth Edwards died in December 2010 after battling cancer.

A key issue will be whether Edwards knew about the payments made on his behalf by his national campaign finance chairman, the late Texas lawyer Fred Baron, and campaign donor Rachel "Bunny" Mellon, a 101-year-old heiress.