Former attorney Minor appeals bribery conviction

Published 11:27 pm Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lawyers for jailed former Mississippi attorney Paul Minor asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to overturn his bribery conviction.

Minor, 62, built a national reputation and amassed a fortune by suing tobacco, asbestos and other companies. He was convicted in March 2007 of bribing two judges and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Minor was convicted of guaranteeing loans to a judge in 1998, then using cash, a third party and a backdated promissory note to conceal that Minor had paid off the loan. The judge awarded one of Minor’s clients $3.6 million in a lawsuit, although the amount was later cut in half on appeal.

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Minor’s appeal was heard in Austin by a three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Minor’s attorney, Hiram Eastland Jr., said that Minor’s trial jury was not required to find explicit proof that the loans were in exchange for specific acts or rulings by the judge, known in legal terms as a “quid pro quo” scenario.

Although Minor’s first trial in 2005, in which he was acquitted on some charges and the jury hung on others, included the requirements, they were left out of the retrial when he was convicted. The second trial required only a finding of “intent to influence,” a lower standard that courts have found to be insufficient in cases like Minor’s, Eastland said.

Minor has claimed the loans were just campaign contributions for old friends. Without the proof of a specific exchange of money for judicial favors, prosecutors are free to pursue corruption charges against anyone making a political contribution, Eastland said.

“Without it, everything becomes a bribe,” Eastland said after the hearing.

Prosecutors have said Minor orchestrated a complicated scheme to manage the loans for Harrison County Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, who were convicted of giving Minor’s clients favorable rulings in exchange for the money.

Minor has also claimed that as a prominent Democrat, he was the subject of a politically motivated prosecution by Republicans in the Justice Department.

Judge Priscilla Owen, who was nominated by President Bush, recused herself from the case after Eastland wrote the court about her past working relationship and friendship with presidential adviser Karl Rove. Sitting in for Owen was Judge Fortunato P. Benavides, who was nominated by former President Clinton.

Prosecutors have called Minor’s claims that his trial and conviction were politically motivated “wild speculation and innuendo.”