Who's Minding the Bench in Mississippi?

Famed Litigator, Two Judges Convicted of Bribery

By Holbrook Mohr
The Associated Press, April 2, 2007

JACKSON, Miss. — A prominent attorney and two former judges he was accused of lavishing gifts and money on in exchange for favorable rulings were convicted of bribery.

Paul Minor, who amassed a fortune from asbestos, tobacco, medical malpractice and car safety litigation, was found guilty of all 11 counts against him, which ranged from racketeering to bribery. He faces up to 95 years in prison.

The jury found former Circuit Judge John Whitfield and former Chancellor [Chancery Court Judge] Walter "Wes" Teel guilty of bribery and mail fraud. Whitfield could get a 50-year jail term and Teel could get 25 years.

Sentencing for all three was set for June 14.

All three had pleaded not guilty, and their attorneys vowed to appeal Friday's ruling.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Fulcher said during closing arguments that Minor guaranteed $140,000 in loans to Whitfield in 1998, then used cash, a third party and a backdated promissory note to try to conceal the fact that Minor paid off the loan. Whitfield awarded Minor $3.6 million in a lawsuit, Fulcher said. The Mississippi Supreme Court later reduced the award to $1.6 million.

Fulcher said Minor guaranteed a loan to Teel for $24,500 the same year. Teel "forced through" a $1.5 million settlement in one of Minor's cases before his court, he said.

Minor acknowledged guaranteeing loans for the judges but claimed he was only helping friends who had fallen on hard times and expected nothing in return.

Besides Whitfield and Teel, Minor was also accused of bribing Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr.

The four were tried in U.S. District Court in Jackson last year. A jury cleared Diaz of all charges and deadlocked on some charges against the other three.

Whitfield and Teel are free on bond pending an appeal. Minor has been jailed since September for violating the terms of his bond for alleged excessive drinking and not adhering to the rules of his house arrest. He was ordered to remain in jail.

Copyright 2007 ALM Properties, Inc.

From: New York Lawyer, April 2, 2007, http://www.nylawyer.com/display.php/file=/news/07/04/040207p, accessed April 2, 2007.  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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