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Monday, November 12, 2007

Paul Minor and Me, Part II

Our humble blog recently passed its five-month birthday (that's 35 in blog years), and someone who has read fairly carefully over that time might ask the following questions: You are from Alabama, so why have you spent so much time on the Paul Minor case in Mississippi? And why would you, of all people, come to the defense of an attorney and two judges who have been convicted on corruption charges? After all, you claim you have been the victim of corrupt lawyers and judges; shouldn't you be pleased that Minor is in federal prison and Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield are headed there?

Fair questions. Here's my answer:

I first became interested in the Paul Minor case when The Birmingham News ran a small item about it roughly two years ago. I think it was right before the verdict was announced on the first trial. (Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz was acquitted on all counts; the jury acquitted Minor, Teel, and Whitfield on some counts and failed to reach unanimous verdicts on other counts. That led to a retrial this year, which ended with convictions on all charges.)

If the case had not involved allegations of judicial corruption, don't know that I would have paid any attention to it. If it had involved alleged bribes to a city councilman or a police chief, I probably would have zipped right on to the comics. But when I saw that judges were being charged with corruption, my initial thought was: I'm glad crooked judges are held accountable somewhere, because they sure aren't in Alabama.

The second thing that caught my eye was that the case involved something called honest-services mail fraud. That was a new one on me. I decided to conduct some research, mainly to find out what in the heck honest-services mail fraud was.

I started with reports on the case from Mississippi newspapers. It quickly became apparent that the case had political overtones. Minor was a longtime supporter of Democratic causes, and his father Bill was a newspaper columnist known for his courageous reporting during the civil rights era. While Mississippi has nonpartisan judicial races, the defendant judges generally were seen as pro-plaintiff.

The defense claimed that a Justice Department led by Republican appointees was going after a Democratic supporter and pro-plaintiff judges for political reasons.

That's interesting, I thought. All of the judges in my case are Republicans, and they don't seem the least bit concerned about getting caught for wrongdoing. That thought stayed with me.

At the time, I thought the judges in my case were guilty of state ethics violations, and the Alabama body charged with overseeing such matters is the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC). I had already filed complaints with the JIC and found it to be an utterly worthless outfit; it wouldn't even investigate my case.

But when I began to research honest-services mail fraud, I realized that something much larger than state ethics violations was at hand in my case. Honest-services mail fraud (18 U.S. Code 1346) is a complex topic, but it boils down to this: A public official who acts dishonestly, who makes decisions based on his or her own biases as opposed to what is best for the public, and uses the U.S. mails in furtherance of the scheme, has committed a federal crime.

I had overwhelming evidence that Shelby County circuit judges J. Michael Joiner and G. Dan Reeves, in conjunction with attorney William E. Swatek, had committed honest-services mail fraud in my case.

And then something interesting happened when I began to study the underlying lawsuits at the heart of the government's case in the Paul Minor trial. I couldn't find all of the lawsuits in my research, but I found most of them--a defamation case against Minor's father, Bill Minor; a personal-injury case, a wrongful-death case, and a bad-faith insurance case (all with Minor representing the plaintiffs).

You didn't need a Harvard law degree to see that these cases were correctly decided by the defendant judges. Heck, in some of them, the defendant judge had recused himself and not participated in the vote.

Newspaper accounts made it clear that the loan guarantees Minor had made to the judges were allowed by Mississippi law. I think that is bad public policy, but I was not surprised it's allowed in Mississippi. I had read numerous campaign reports in The Birmingham News, showing that law firms gave big dollars to judicial campaigns, so it's evidently find and dandy in Alabama, too.

Since the loan guarantees were legal, the issue in the Minor case then was this: Did the judges rule honestly, according to the law, in the cases before them. And the answer was yes.

So I thought: How are these judges being charged with federal crimes when they clearly made correct decisions on the underlying lawsuits? And what about the clearly incorrect and unlawful rulings that Alabama judges had made in my case (and they had repeatedly used the U.S. mails to send them my way)?

The answer to that question began to crystallize when I contacted the FBI to let them know about the federal crimes of which I had been the victim. I sent the bureau a lengthy, and detailed, report on its Web form that is specifically for public-corruption cases. No reply. I called the Birmingham FBI office, and a gentleman did listen to a short version of my story on the phone. He seemed to have little interest, so I asked for the name of the person in charge of white-collar crime. He gave me that name, and I left several messages with the individual. No response.

I sent an e-mail to Matt Hart, white-collar crime director in U.S. Attorney's office in Birmingham. No reply. So I called one day and managed to catch Hart on the telephone. He blew me off. Said he "kicks" cases all the time, and he was "kicking" mine. Funny he would "kick" it when I wasn't even aware he had looked at it yet.

Finally, I sent a snail-mail letter to Alice Martin, Hart's boss, copying Carmen Adams, head of Birmingham's FBI office. The letter included numerous citations to applicable law and should have given a reader the idea that I had some notion of what I was talking about.

Martin apparently thought it would be bad form to ignore this, so she sent me a somewhat snide letter, saying she and her kick-ass staff were well aware of the law. What they needed were detailed allegations about wrongdoing. If I sent her that, she definitely would refer my information to the appropriate investigative agency.

My guess is that Martin thought she would never hear from me again. She was wrong. I sent her a lengthy missive with all kinds of details about the wrongdoing I had witnessed. Evidently this was unsettling to Queen Alice because months went by, and I never heard from her. Remember, she had promised to refer this to the appropriate investigative agency.

I wasn't sure what the queen's e-mail address was, and nobody seemed anxious to supply it. So I took a stab at it and asked where's the reply to my letter--and the promised referral. Evidently I guessed right because Queen Alice responded to my e-mail. And she didn't seem particularly happy that I had tracked her down.

The queen and I had quite an e-mail tussle, an exchange that Legal Schnauzer readers will get to enjoy in its entirety quite soon. But here's the gist: Queen Alice said she had referred my allegations to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, evidently thinking that would mollify me.

But yours truly checked the postal inspection service Web site and found that it doesn't even have jurisdiction to investigate a public corruption case under 18 U.S. Code 1346. The service focuses on consumer cases, mostly involving elderly folks.

When I informed the queen that she had sent my complaint to the wrong agency, she was not pleased. When I informed her that the FBI clearly was the correct agency and asked why it had not been sent there, she was even less happy.

You can send it to the FBI yourself, she said. Hey wait, I said, you promised that YOU would refer it to the appropriate agency. You haven't done that.

The Queen informed me that my complaint would stay with the postal inspection service until:

(A) They decided it should go to the FBI;

(B) Brittney Spears is named Parent of the Year;

(C) Conway Twitty has a No. 1 record on the rap charts;

(D) Idaho State wins the Rose Bowl;

(E) The earth quits spinning on its axis;

(F) Whichever of the above comes first.

What about the promise you made to me, a taxpayer, in writing? The Queen was too busy, suddenly, to answer that question.

So what was I left to believe? That Democratic judges in Mississippi can rule according to the law and get on a fast track to federal prison. That Republican judges can torture and brutalize the law at will and go merrily on their way.

A double standard? Selective prosecution? Hey, that's what Congress is looking into.

And that's why the Paul Minor case matters, no matter where you live.


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