Former judge asks to remain free while appealing bribery conviction

Published 4:41 pm Friday, December 14, 2007

A former Harrison County judge who was convicted of bribery is asking to remain free on bond while he appeals his nine-year federal prison sentence, according to court records.

The request is a reversal for former Circuit Judge John Whitfield, who previously said he was ready to start serving the sentence so he could get it over with and move on with his life.

Whitfield was convicted in March in a judicial bribery scandal that toppled one of Mississippi’s most successful plaintiffs attorneys, Paul Minor.

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Prosecutors say 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 repaid the loan. Whitfield awarded Minor’s client $3.6 million in a personal injury lawsuit.

After the Sept. 7 sentencing, Whitfield said he would not try to remain free on bond. However, he is now requesting bond because his 15-year-old son asked him to, said Michael Crosby, Whitfield’s attorney and law partner.

Despite being “extremely hopeful” the conviction will be overturned on appeal, Crosby said there’s no guarantee that it will be. And, he said, it’s difficult for the youngster to understand that the family would have more time together later in life if Whitfield begins the sentence now.

“How do you say no to your kid,” Crosby said. “They lost their mother and now they’re losing their father for a long time.”

Whitfield’s former wife and the mother of his three children died last year of cancer.

Whitfield and former Harrison County Chancery Judge Wes Teel are both scheduled to report to prison on Dec. 27.

Minor, who had violated the conditions of his bond before the trial, is already serving his 11-year sentence in a federal prison in Tallahassee, Fla. Minor has also paid about $4.2 million in fines and restitution.

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. All three are appealing their convictions.

Prominent attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who was indicted last month on different bribery allegations, was called as a witness during the trail.

Minor and Scruggs are both from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and each man made a fortune in tobacco and asbestos litigation. Scruggs was questioned during the Minor case about guaranteeing loans for judges. Prosecutors said Minor secured the loans as a sophisticated method of bribery, but Scruggs was never charged with a crime in that case.

The charges against Scruggs now arose from a different set of circumstances. Prosecutors says Scruggs, his son and law partner Zach Scruggs, and several associates allegedly paid a judge $40,000 in cash for a favorable decision.

All of those involved claim they are innocent, except for Timothy Balducci. Balducci pleaded guilty to conspiracy and has cooperated with the government in its investigation.

Scruggs, whose brother-in-law is Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is one of the best known lawyers in the country. He reportedly earned about $848 million for his part in brokering a multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the mid-1990s. That case was portrayed in the 1999 movie “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.