Court upholds most convictions in Miss. corruption

Published 12:39 am Sunday, December 13, 2009

A federal appeals court tossed out bribery charges against a wealthy ex-lawyer and two former judges Friday, but upheld most of the convictions in a high-profile judicial corruption scandal in Mississippi.

Paul Minor, who was one of Mississippi’s most successful attorneys at one time, and Harrison County judges John Whitfield and Wes Teel were convicted on numerous counts in 2007. Prosecutors said Minor orchestrated a complicated scheme in which he guaranteed loans for the judges, then used cash and third parties to pay off the loans. They allegedly ruled in his favor in civil cases.

Minor, 63, is serving the longest sentence of the three — 11 years in a federal prison in Pensacola, Fla. Before being indicted, Minor was considered among the top tort lawyers in Mississippi, amassing a fortune by suing tobacco, asbestos and other companies.

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A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans threw out a bribery conviction for each of the men, but upheld other convictions, including mail fraud, wire fraud and honest services fraud. The court also tossed one conspiracy charge each against Minor and Teel.

The ruling means the men will be sentenced again on the remaining charges. A new sentencing hearing was not immediately set.

It’s not clear how much the reversal will reduce Minor’s sentence because he got the most time for a racketeering conviction, which was upheld.

The court reversed Minor’s conviction on three counts — one of conspiracy and two counts of bribery — and upheld eight others.

“We appreciate the Court of Appeals’ thoughtful consideration of Paul Minor’s case and its reversal of his federal bribery conviction,” Hiram Eastland Jr., an attorney for Minor, said Friday.

Minor’s legal team will ask the three-judge panel to reconsider the other issues raised on appeal or ask for the entire 5th Circuit to hear the case, Eastland said.

Eastland said Minor’s legal team hopes that cases currently before the U.S. Supreme Court dealing with honest services fraud will come down in their favor. Honest services fraud carries up to a 20-year sentence, and is used to prosecute people involved in schemes to “deprive another of the intangible right of honest services.”

Eastland believes the statute is too broad.

“The honest service statute under which Paul Minor was convicted has created a legal twilight zone and nightmare that no citizen or public official would want to be faced with defending,” he said.

The honest services statute has been criticized by others as well, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia wrote a dissenting opinion in February in an unrelated case that the statute is so broad it could be used in a number of circumstances, even “a mayor’s attempt to use the prestige of his office to obtain a restaurant table without a reservation.”

Minor, a millionaire Democrat, has long claimed he was the victim of selective prosecution by a politicized Justice Department when Republican George W. Bush was president. Federal prosecutors have dismissed the allegation.

The court reversed one bribery count against Whitfield, a former circuit court judge, and threw out bribery and a conspiracy charge against Teel, a former chancery court judge.

Teel, now 59, was sentenced to nearly six years on four counts. Whitfield, now 46, was sentenced to more than nine years on six counts.