Today should be a sobering day for all Americans, as our population of known political prisoners doubles in size.
Former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman and Mississippi attorney Paul Minor have been in federal prison for months now. They are joined today by former Mississippi state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, both convicted with Minor on corruption-related charges.
The real crimes of all four men? Being active and successful Democrats in Deep South states, where Republicans in the Age of Rove will brook no competition.
Let me repeat that to ensure that it sinks in: At least four Americans, all Democrats, are being held political prisoner, right now. Most Americans have not realized the enormity of this story. When is the last (or the first) time that you have heard a presidential candidate from either party mention it?
A strong argument could be made that it is the most important domestic issue in our country at the moment. Few Americans can grasp the concept that our Department of Justice (DOJ) is knowingly imprisoning people who have committed no crimes. But that is exactly what has taken place with Siegelman, Minor, Teel, and Whitfield.
Scott Horton, of Harper's.org., has written with stark clarity about the Siegelman case, and we here at Legal Schnauzer are among a number of bloggers who have followed the story closely. As for the Minor case, we have written 30-plus posts about the case, showing that the three defendants did not even come close to committing federal crimes.
Horton also has written a number of major posts about the Minor case, the most recent coming yesterday and focusing on Wes Teel. The headline: Collateral Damage: Is Mississippi Judge Wes Teel the Victim of a Political Prosecution?
The answer to that question is a resounding yes. And Horton goes on to outline the absurdity of the government's "case" against Teel. Horton earlier had reported that Paul Minor, a successful Gulf Coast attorney, was a generous donor to Democratic campaigns, including those of Teel and Whitfield. Minor also supported Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards, and Horton has reported on an apparent campaign by the Bush DOJ to target Edwards' trial-lawyer supporters.
"Of course, they were out after Paul Minor," Teel tells Horton, days before reporting to federal prison in Atlanta. "I was just collateral damage."
Indeed, evidence strongly suggests that both Teel and Whitfield got caught in the ugly crossfire aimed at a successful Democratic attorney who had successfully sued the asbestos and tobacco industries, not to mention oil interests. Those are traits Minor shares with another political prisoner--Don Siegelman.
Horton provides valuable insight on the underlying lawsuit that wound up putting Wes Teel in prison. The lawsuit involved The Peoples Bank, represented by Paul Minor, against the insurer USF&G. The bank contended that it was owed coverage on a policy designed to address liability arising from automobiles that the bank financed. When the insurance company failed to provide coverage under the policy, the bank sued.
The case was straightforward, Horton reports. The issue was the interpretation of specific insurance contract language. Then he makes a critical point:
"Of course the insurance company had written the contract language, which is why, as a general premise, ambiguities would not be settled in its favor."
It should not have been a surprise to the insurance company then that Teel ruled in the bank's favor on liability. Teel also had ruled in the bank's favor on a discovery matter.
But did any of Teel's actions indicate he was corrupt, ruling contrary to the facts and law in the case? Evidently even the insurance company did not think so. As Horton notes, the insurance company did not take a number of steps it could have taken if it thought Teel was clearly wrong and/or corrupt in his rulings. Instead, it chose to settle the case.
So Wes Teel did not even make a final ruling in the lawsuit, and there is no evidence that he ruled contrary to law. And yet, because of this case, Wes Teel is reporting to federal prison today.
How could that be? After the insurance company chose to settle, the Mississippi Supreme Court handed down a split decision in a similar case, siding with the insurance company and against the bank. As tends to happen in our modern courts, the ruling had politics written all over it: Republican justices sided with the insurance company, Democrats supported the bank.
But get this: The government used this ruling, which came well after the lawsuit that had settled before Teel, as proof that Teel had acted corruptly. Never mind that Teel's decisions did not run counter to any law that was settled at the time of his rulings.
"It looks to me like the prosecution of Judge Teel was motivated by a very emotional case of buyer's remorse on the part of the insurance company and its lawyers," Horton writes. "As it turned out, they didn't call things correctly. The Supreme Court went their way. The criminal prosecution offered a way to get restitution and overturn the settlement.
"This is, to put it mildly, not an appropriate use of the criminal justice system. But it's just the sort of use to which the Bush Justice Department is itching to put it."
I've had the pleasure of getting to know Wes Teel via e-mail over the past several months. He is a good-natured fellow, with a keen sense of humor. So it is appropriate that Horton managed to find some humor in the Teel saga, by noting the strange premise upon which the government built its case.
"The Justice Department's contention is that the insurance company wouldn't have entered into the settlement but for the pressure of Judge Teel," Horton writes. "That means the Justice Department has decided to treat the insurance companies and their high-priced lawyers with the sort of special paternalistic deference reserved in the nineteenth century for widows, imbeciles, and orphans. . . . Now the insurance company and its fancy lawyers were definitely not widows or orphans, and whether they were imbeciles would be a judgment call I am not prepared to make. But for the Bush Justice Department they are, apparently, to be viewed as persons who cannot fend for themselves in the rough wilderness of Mississippi's judiciary . . . "
Were the insurance-company lawyers truly helpless? Hardly. Just consider the weapons at their disposal. One was to accept Teel's rulings and move forward to trial, confident in the strength of their case. If the trial didn't go well, they could appeal to a higher court, confident in the strength of their case. And if they truly thought Teel was wrong, they had two weapons they could have used right then and there.
You can read about these weapons here, provided by the Mississippi Rules of Appellate Procedure, which appear to be pretty much identical to the Alabama rules. Under Rule 5, the insurance company could have sought an interlocutory appeal by permission. If Teel failed to grant permission--and the evidence suggests he would have been perfectly fine with the insurance company taking the question to a higher court--the company could have sought a writ of mandamus. This is an extraordinary writ, asking a higher court to direct a lower-court judge to take a certain action that is in line with its interpretation of the law.
The insurance company had all kinds of weapons at its disposal--if it had been confident in its case. But that's the problem. Evidence suggests that the insurance company knew it was on shaky legal footing. Based on my reading of the criminal-trial transcript, I understand that the contentious discovery issue involved a document in which insurance-company officials acknowledged that they were on shaky legal footing under the law at the time.
As I recall, the insurance company contended that the document was privileged, but Teel ruled that it was discoverable. My guess is this: The real reason the insurance company settled is that one of their own documents had come to light showing they didn't have a very good case--and they knew it.
And irony of irony, a very similar document came to light in the ExxonMobil case, where the Alabama Supreme Court overturned a $3.6 billion verdict in favor of the state against the oil giant.
What does this tell us about Republican justice in the Age of Rove: When you uncover one of their dirty little corporate secrets, watch out. They will do their darnedest to make somebody pay.
Scott Horton has more posts coming about the people who have wrongfully been forced to pay in the Paul Minor case. Horton evidently will focus like a laser on U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate, who presided over the Minor trial.
We here at Legal Schnauzer will do the same. We have shown conclusively, through our "Mississippi Churning" series, that Wingate made numerous unlawful rulings that all but ensured the defendants would be convicted. Wingate's key errors, which almost certainly were not accidental, involved the following:
* Expert witnesses for the defense, who would have shown that Teel and Whitfield ruled correctly based on the facts and law before them.
* Jury instructions on bribery, which were not at all in line with actual federal bribery law.
* Jury instructions on honest-services mail fraud, which were not at all in line with actual federal bribery law.
We soon will be presenting a summary of our "Mississippi Churning" series. Three innocent Americans currently are in federal prison because of the Paul Minor case. It is critical that Americans understand the corrupt actions of the federal judge who put them there.