Who's Minding the Bench in Mississippi?

Minor, disbarred in La., reluctant to give up appeals

By Anita Lee
The Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS), October 24, 2012

The Louisiana Supreme Court has disbarred former Biloxi attorney Paul Minor, who continues to claim he never committed judicial bribery.

Minor and two state court judges from Gulfport [John Whitfield and Walter "Wes" Teel] were convicted on the federal charges in 2007. The Mississippi Supreme Court disbarred Minor from the practice of law in February 2011, after an initial round of appeals ended.

Louisiana could have accepted the Mississippi disbarment proceedings, but Minor protested. He claimed the Mississippi Supreme Court denied him due process and the disbarment was fundamentally unfair, said Charles Plattsmier, head attorney for Louisiana's Disciplinary Council.

Rather than go through a legal battle over the Mississippi process, Plattsmier said, Louisiana initiated its own proceedings.

Minor recently lost a second appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court did throw out numerous convictions against Minor and the judges when they first appealed, resulting in reduced sentences for all three.

However, their convictions stood under federal honest-services fraud laws.

Minor deprived the public of the judges' honest services, a jury found. The multi-millionaire secured loans for the judges during their 1998 campaigns, then concealed payments he made on those loans. Both judges ruled favorably on cases Minor's firm had before them. Whitfield issued his ruling in 2000, while Minor was still paying on loans to the judge totaling $140,000. Teel's rulings came in 2000 and 2001, after Minor paid off the judge's $25,000 loan through an intermediary.

One of Minor's attorneys, Oliver Diaz Jr., said Minor is considering another appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the first appeal.

Diaz said the U.S. Supreme Court did not get to consider Minor's conviction in light of the Skilling case the court later decided. In that case, the high court held an honest-services fraud conviction must stem from bribery or kickbacks. Minor contends evidence and jury instructions failed to rise to the level of bribery by tying his loans directly to the judges' rulings.

The 5th Circuit recently rejected Minor's arguments, reaffirming the case involved "two prolonged bribery schemes spanning nearly four years each."

Minor is scheduled to be released in July from a minimum-security federal prison in Pensacola. Although his time behind bars is nearing its end, Diaz said, Minor is reluctant to give up his legal fight.

"When you feel like you're not guilty," Diaz said, "you want to pursue every possible appeal."

Teel has been released from prison. Whitfield, serving his time at a medical facility in Lexington, Ky., is scheduled to be released in June, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons website.

Copyright 2012, The Sun Herald

Additional Reading
Department of Justice [Press Release] "Biloxi Attorney Paul Minor and Two Former Mississippi State Court Judges Sentenced on Conviction in Bribery Scheme," September 7, 2007, http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2007/September/07_crm_695.html, accessed 10/27/09.

Additional Viewing
Oliver Diaz discusses the financial support he received for his 2000 judicial reelection campaign from his "good friend," Paul Minor, in the 2011 documentary, Hot Coffee, directed by filmmaker Susan Saladoff.

From: Anita Lee, "Minor, disbarred in La., reluctant to give up appeals," Sun Herald, Biloxi, MS, October 24, 2012.  Anita Lee may be contacted at calee@sunherald.com.  Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107 for a non-profit educational purpose.

As with the Bodenheimer case, the Minor case teaches that the business and political relationships of judges must be scrutinized to determine whether there could be a conflict of interest between a judge and the litigant or attorney who comes before him or her.  It also suggests that the authority to decide questions of judicial impropriety should be removed from judges, who are usually self-serving, and placed in the hands of a truly independent body.

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