Who's Minding the Bench in Mississippi?

High-Flying Lawyer and Two Judges He Bribed Are Headed to Prison

By Holbrook Mohr
The Associated Press, September 10, 2007

A prominent attorney and the two Mississippi judges he bribed for favorable rulings were sentenced Friday to several years each in federal prison.

Paul Minor, a once highly regarded attorney who amassed a fortune from asbestos, tobacco, medical malpractice and car safety cases, was ordered to serve 11 years in prison. He also was fined $2.7 million and must pay restitution.

In handing down the sentence, Southern District of Mississippi Judge Henry T. Wingate told Minor: "You distinguished yourself in the practice of law. Speaking metaphorically, Lady Justice must be sobbing."

Minor and his co-defendants, former judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, will appeal their convictions, according to Minor's lawyer, high-profile Washington attorney Abbe Lowell.

"The various decisions Judge Wingate made will keep the appeals courts busy for a long time," he said on the courthouse steps.

The three men have long claimed they were the victims of a Republican vendetta because of Minor's support of Democratic causes. The attorney acknowledged guaranteeing loans for the two judges, but claimed he was only helping friends and expected nothing in return.

Dave Fulcher, one of the federal prosecutors in the case, said the sentence reflects the seriousness of the crimes.

"The defendants put justice for sale and the sentence is a deterrent to anyone who might consider corrupting the judicial system," Fulcher said.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., who was acquitted in the bribery scheme in 2005, echoed the sentiment that the prosecution was politically motivated.

"When the federal government begins to politically prosecute, everyone should be afraid," said Diaz, who served seven years as a Republican in the state House of Representatives before becoming a judge.

In the 2005 trial, the jury failed to reach verdicts on some charges against Minor, Teel and Whitfield, so they were retried in March. Minor was convicted on 11 charges including racketeering and bribery. The two judges, who handled trials in coastal Harrison County, were convicted of mail fraud and bribery.

On Friday, Whitfield was sentenced to more than nine years in prison and fined $125,000. Teel was sentenced to nearly six years in prison, and he and Minor were ordered jointly to pay $1.5 million in restitution to USF&G Insurance Co. That amount involved a settlement reached in Teel's court between the insurer and one of Minor's clients.

Minor was convicted of guaranteeing $140,000 in loans to Whitfield in 1998, then using cash, a third party and a backdated promissory note to conceal that Minor paid off the loan. Whitfield awarded Minor's client $3.6 million in a lawsuit. The Mississippi Supreme Court later reduced the award to $1.6 million.

Minor was also accused of guaranteeing a loan of $24,500 to Teel the same year. Prosecutors said Teel forced through a $1.5 million settlement in one of Minor's cases before his court.

During the sentencing hearing, Minor thanked Wingate for jailing him last year when his bond was revoked, in part for excessive drinking, because that time in jail helped him confront his alcoholism.

The judge gave Minor credit for the year he has served but said he could not give Minor leniency. "The crimes for which you've been convicted are just so great to a system of justice," he said.

Teel and Whitfield asked for short sentences because of family obligations. Teel's wife has multiple sclerosis. Whitfield, who divorced his wife before she died last year, has a son in school.

The judge allowed the two men to report to prison Dec. 27 so they would have time to get their affairs in order.

Copyright 2007 ALM Properties, Inc.

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.

From: New York Lawyer, September 10, 2007, http://www.nylawyer.com/display.php/file=/news/07/09/091007g, accessed 09/10/07.  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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