Jury to begin deliberations Friday in Miss. judicial bribery case

Published 4:57 pm Friday, March 30, 2007

Federal prosecutors say wealthy attorney Paul Minor bribed two judges. Minor says it was just loans for friends in need. It’s now up to a jury to decide.

Jurors will begin deliberations Friday in the federal bribery trial of millionaire attorney Paul Minor and two former judges.

Defense attorneys said Thursday during closing arguments that federal prosecutors were “misguided” and have failed to prove Minor bribed former Circuit Judge John Whitfield and former Chancellor Wes Teel.

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The government claims Minor, who accumulated a fortune primarily through personal injury litigation, used cash, checks and gifts to secure favorable rulings from Teel and Whitfield. All three have denied the charges.

Minor is well known in legal circles and was a lead lawyer in suits against Ford and Firestone, in which faulty tires were blamed for causing accidents. He and another Gulf Coast attorney and friend, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, have sued some of the largest health insurers and corporations in the country.

Scruggs, who is now leading the charge against insurance companies over Hurricane Katrina damages, was a government witness during the trial.

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

“What they have shown you is insinuation. What they have shown you is innuendo. With respect to whether this was anything other than a loan, the government’s evidence falls short,” said Michael Crosby, an attorney for Whitfield. “What we have here is a case of the righteous versus the misguided.”

Prosecutors say Minor secured loans for Whitfield and Teel in 1998, then paid off the loans using cash and third parties to conceal the transactions.

Crosby used an overhead projector and a red pen to point out what he claimed were mistakes throughout the 31 page indictment.

“If this were a test in school, we’d give them an F,” he said. “If these weren’t government employees, they’d be fired.”

During the government’s closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Fulcher said the case “is all about subtle deception and concealment.”

Fulcher said Minor guaranteed $140,000 in loans to Whitfield, 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, and persuaded Scruggs to pay off the loan. Scruggs testified that Minor repaid him, but they did nothing wrong.

Teel “forced through” a $1.5 million settlement in one of Minor’s cases before his court, Fulcher said.

Dennis Sweet, Minor’s attorney, told the jury that bank officials had signed loan agreements 69 times, saying that was proof that the defendant’s weren’t trying to hide anything.

“This is the scheme to keep a secret?” Sweet asked. “I guess you can just go down to Peoples Bank and go to the bribe division.”

Natashia Tidwell, a prosecutor with the U.S. Justice Department, said the defendants used loans to disguise their real intentions.

“The truth is the judges never intended to pay the money back and Mr. Minor knew it,” Tidwell said. “It was implicit with the deal.”

George Lucas, Teel’s attorney, said Teel used the loan from Minor on his campaign when he was running for Harrison County chancery judge, adding that Teel had not even been elected to the bench when the loan was made.

Minor was first accused in 2003 of bribing the lower court judges and Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr.

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