Defense argues loans to judges did not require disclosure under law

Published 4:51 pm Friday, March 2, 2007

State law did not require two former judges to disclose campaign loans guaranteed by coast attorney Paul S. Minor in 1998, the head of the state judicial investigative agency testified Thursday in the bribery trial of the three men.

The Justice Department claims Minor, former Chancery Judge Wes Teel and former Circuit Judge John Whitfield sought to cover up their financial relationships. The government called as a witness Luther Brantley III, executive director of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance, who testified Wednesday that neither Teel nor Whitfield reported loans from Minor on their statements of economic interest or campaign financial disclosure reports.

During cross-examination Thursday by Minor attorney Brad Pigott, Brantley testified that there was no statutory requirement for judicial candidates to report such loans. He also said that at the time the loans were made there were no limits on the amount an individual could contribute to a judicial campaign. Defense attorneys contend there was no reason to cover up the financial relationships because Minor could have legally given the money to the judicial candidates.

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The government alleges Minor arranged a $25,000 line of credit for Teel and loans of $40,000 and $100,000 to Whitfield at the People’s Bank in Biloxi in 1998, then secretly paid off the notes as part of a scheme to influence cases involving his clients in the two judges’ courts. Minor, a personal injury lawyer, is accused of bribing Teel and Whitfield, who are accused of accepting the bribes. All three have pleaded innocent.

Brantley testified Thursday that statements of economic interest, which are filed with the state Ethics Commission, are designed to reveal sources of income that could pose a potential conflict of interest for an elected official. Financial disclosure reports, which are filed with the Secretary of State’s Office, require campaigns to report donations of more than $200.

Teel reported contributing approximately $24,500 of his own money to his campaign in 1998, which equals the amount drafted from the line of credit Minor guaranteed. He also reported $7,000 in direct contributions from Minor. During the same period Whitfield reported contributing $40,000 of his own money to his campaign, the equivalent of the loan Minor guaranteed, but no direct contributions from Minor.

Minor, Whitfield and Teel were tried on bribery charges in 2005, along with Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. In August 2005, a jury acquitted Diaz of all charges and Minor of charges of extortion, bribery and four counts of mail fraud. The jury did not reach a verdict on charges against Minor for racketeering, wire fraud and two other bribery counts, or on the charges against Teel and Whitfield.