All three of the defendant judges evidently had significant financial problems. Defendant judge Oliver Diaz had marital problems and wound up getting a divorce. (His ex-wife, Jennifer Diaz, struck a plea agreement with prosecutors.) Minor, at some point, developed an alcohol problem. And most people probably would consider it fishy for an attorney to be making loans to judges before whom he has cases. If I were an opposing party against Minor before one of these judges, I know I would have a serious problem with it.
But did these men actually commit the crimes of which they were charged? (Minor, Teel, and Whitfield were convicted; Diaz was acquitted.) Or were they targets of a politically motivated prosecution by the Bush justice department, similar to the one faced by Don Siegelman in Alabama?
A close look at the case raises serious questions about whether Minor and company ever should have been charged--or convicted. And it indicates that other Mississippi judges were engaged in similar conduct to the Minor defendants, without drawing any attention from prosecutors. And perhaps most importantly, it reveals some strange decision making by Judge Henry Wingate, including jury instructions that do not seem to square with actual law.
In an earlier post, we noted the key elements of honest-services mail fraud, which accounted for seven of the 14 counts against Minor, Teel, and Whitfield. The other central charge was bribery under 18 U.S. Code 666. The gist of the offense, for the one offering the bribe, is this:
"To corruptly give, offer, or agree to give anything of value to any person, with intent to influence or reward an agent of a state or local government, in connection with any business, transaction, or series of transactions of such government or agency involving anything of value of $5,000 or more when such state or local government or agency received, in any one-year period, benefits in excess of $10,000 under a federal program." (Indictment against Paul Minor, Wes Teel, John Whitfield.)
An act is done corruptly "if it is done intentionally with an unlawful purpose." (Indictment.)
While the Minor case was held in federal court, aspects of the case were controlled by Mississippi law. And here is a critical point to remember: Prior to January 15, 1999, the laws governing judicial elections and/or campaign finance (Mississippi Code 23-15-1021 and 23-15-1023) did not limit the amount of money an individual or company could contribute to the campaign of a judicial candidate. Also, state law at the time did not require the disclosure on a campaign finance disclosure form of loans to a campaign nor the fact that any such loan was guaranteed by some third party or the identity of the guarantor, if any." (Jury instructions in trial of Paul Minor, Wes Teel, John Whitfield.)
In other words, for a lawyer to make gifts and loans to judges before whom he has cases is not, in and of itself, illegal in Mississippi. Based on my research, it appears to be common practice around the country, and I'm not sure it's illegal in any state.
Personally, I think such gifts, contributions, and loans from lawyers to judges should be banned across the board. But I'm not the one making the law here.
Let's look at some of the key factors involved, and serious questions raised, in the Paul Minor case.