Judge rejects government argument that Minor tried to hide assets

Published 4:41 pm Friday, September 7, 2007

A sentencing hearing for a wealthy Gulf Coast attorney and the two former judges he was convicted of bribing continues Friday in federal court.

Paul Minor, former Harrison County Circuit Judge John Whitfield and former Harrison County Chancery Judge Wes Teel were found guilty in March in a case that revealed financial ties between Minor and the two judges.

A sentencing hearing for the three men lasted two days in August and started again Thursday. It was set to continue at 9 a.m. Friday.

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Minor’s assets have been a point of contention during the sentencing phase because that could be the basis of fines and restitution payments as part of his sentence for a conviction on charges ranging from racketeering to bribery.

During a hearing Thursday, a U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate rejected prosecutors’ argument that Minor tried to hide assets by transferring ownership of a vacation home to his wife in 2003 when he knew he was under investigation in a judicial bribery case.

“I don’t have enough information to conclude that was done on an improper basis,” U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Fulcher argued Thursday that in October 2002, a south Mississippi newspaper, the Sun Herald, reported federal prosecutors were investigating attorneys’ loans to judges.

Fulcher said that in January 2003 the FBI searched Minor’s law office, and in early July 2003 Minor signed documents transferring his Park City, Utah, vacation home now worth $4.9 million to his wife, Sylvia.

Minor was indicted on July 25, 2003. Fulcher said documents show the mortgage for the Utah home was paid off about that time.

“Mr. Minor has attempted to mislead this court,” Fulcher said.

Minor’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, said Minor had the right to transfer property at any time.

“Mr. Fulcher wants to make this a side show as to impropriety,” Lowell said. “I understand Mr. Minor is down and it’s easy to beat on him.”

Besides the possibility of fines or restitution, Minor faces up to 95 years in prison.

Teel and Whitfield were found guilty of mail fraud and bribery for accepting the bribes. Teel faces up to 25 years in prison, and Whitfield faces up to 50 years.

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 try to conceal the fact 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.

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

Whitfield’s attorney, Michael Crosby, told Wingate on Thursday: “John Whitfield accepts responsibility for what he did.” He also said Whitfield never changed verdicts on cases.

Before being indicted, Minor amassed a fortune from asbestos, tobacco, medical malpractice and car safety litigation.

Wingate said Thursday he had “a strong concern” that Minor might not have disclosed enough information about the amount of money Minor is supposed to receive the next several years from a tobacco lawsuit settlement. Minor was one of several private attorneys who represented Mississippi in its lawsuit against cigarette makers during the 1990s. Lowell said more information would be given.

Minor appeared in court Thursday in an orange jumpsuit from the Madison County jail, where he has been held since September 2006 after Wingate found he had violated terms of bond by drinking excessively and not abiding by terms of his house arrest.

After their convictions, Whitfield and Teel were allowed to walk out of court on appeal bonds.