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Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mississippi Churning, Part XXI

Let's return to our focus on the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, looking at evidence that illustrates the weakness of the government's case.

From checking various court documents, we learn the following:

* The government sent more than 30 agents to go through files at Minor & Associates, Paul Minor's law firm on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. (Remember Paul Minor was a major contributor to John Edwards' campaign, and we are slowly learning details about what appears to be a concerted Bush Justice Department campaign to investigate contributors to both Edwards and Hillary Clinton. Was Paul Minor one of the first major Democratic donors to be targeted in this orchestrated Justice Department campaign?)

* During the period covered by the indictment, roughly 1998 to 2003, Paul Minor's firm filed 728 cases. Out of all those cases, how many did the government's 30-some agents find that they could build their case around? Two.

* You heard that right. Two cases out of 728 raised enough questions for the government to build an indictment. And we already have written extensively about those two cases--Archie Marks and Peoples Bank.

* Marks was a personal-injury case, where a roustabout suffered a disabling back injury while working on an oil rig. The company in charge of the oil rig clearly was negligent in failing to provide safe working conditions, even though it holds a particularly high burden under maritime law to protect workers who are vulnerable because they are working offshore. The evidence is overwhelming that Judge John Whitfield ruled correctly based on the facts and the law in the case, and therefore was not influenced by any alleged "bribe" from attorney Paul Minor.

* Peoples Bank was a bad-faith insurance case, where a Biloxi bank sought coverage from USF&G. In an almost identical case at the time, another Mississippi judge had found that USF&G was obligated to provide coverage. That judge, in a case that did not involve Paul Minor, was not indicted; Judge Wes Teel, in a case that did involve Paul Minor, was indicted. The Mississippi Supreme Court eventually ruled that USF&G did not owe coverage, setting new legal precedent. But at the time of his ruling, Teel clearly was within established Mississippi law. Just as in Whitfield's case, Teel ruled correctly based on the facts and the law at the time, and therefore was not influenced by any alleged "bribe" from attorney Paul Minor.

* So we've looked at the two underlying lawsuits at the heart of the government's corruption case against Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield. And we've shown just how weak the government's case was in both instances. And keep this in mind: This was the best the government could come up with.

* Finally, let's look at the financial activity upon which the government built its case. It showed that Minor had helped guarantee loans to Teel and Whitfield. According to the government, Minor used these loan guarantees to gain an "unfair advantage" in cases he had before the two judges. But here is the key: Under Mississippi law at the time, it was perfectly legal for an attorney to give money, guarantee a loan, or provide other financial gifts to judges. (It still is legal, although caps have been put on the amounts that can be given.) The government shined a spotlight on Paul Minor for guaranteeing loans to two judges? But how widespread was the practice of lawyers providing financial help to judges or judicial candidates? In 1998, 580 Mississippi lawyers gave money to lawyers who were running for office.

* So we know that Paul Minor was one of 580 Mississippi lawyers in 1998 to give money to lawyers running for office. Which raises this question: Paul Minor was indicted because his clients received "favorable" rulings in two cases before judges Minor had helped financially. Does that mean that the 579 other Mississippi lawyers never won a case before a judge they had supported financially? Does that seem a little hard to believe to you? It sure does to me? So where are the indictments on these other lawyers? Is it possible that these lawyers were not as wealthy as Paul Minor, and had not been as upfront about supporting Democratic candidates, so therefore they were not targets of the government?

* According to the government's perverse logic, any lawyer who had given financial support to a judge (which is legal) would have to lose every case before that judge. If the lawyer did not lose every case, both the lawyer and the judge would be guilty of federal crimes.

* And finally, let's return to this critical point. The government's indictment said Minor used loan guarantees to gain an "unfair advantage" in certain cases and to receive "favorable rulings." But the terms "unfair advantage" and "favorable rulings" are nowhere to be found in the statutory language involving bribery and honest-services mail fraud, the two key charges in the Minor case. Under the actual law, here' s what matters in a federal bribery case: That the act was done "corruptly," meaning it was done with knowledge that it was "unlawful." Teel and Whitfield did not make unlawful rulings in the cases involving Paul Minor. In fact, they ruled as they should have based on the facts and the law. And under the actual law, here's what matters in an honest-services mail fraud case: That the public actually was "deprived" of a public official's "honest services." There was nothing dishonest about Teel and Whitfield's rulings. In fact, it would have been dishonest for them to rule against Minor's clients in these two cases. So under actual statutory language, the government's case falls apart. I suspect that's why the government used non-statutory, layman's terms in the indictment, and Judge Henry Wingate let them get away with it.

* One final point. Just how perverse is this? Had Teel and Whitfield ruled against Minor's clients in these two cases, ignoring the clear facts and the law, they would have technically been committing honest-services mail fraud. But that would have been fine with the government, and Teel and Whitfield would not be looking at heading to federal prison in December. In other words: The judges could have stayed out of federal prison had they been willing to commit a federal crime. Does that sound nuts? Hey, it's the world we live in under the Bush Justice Department.

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