Friday, August 8, 2008

Tobacco, Gambling, and "Justice" in the Age of Rove

Why have prominent Democrats in the Deep South been the victims of apparent political prosecutions under the Bush Justice Department?

The prosecutions of Paul Minor in Mississippi and Don Siegelman in Alabama can be traced to legal and political battles over tobacco and gambling, according to a compelling new article by Larisa Alexandrovna and Muriel Kane at Jackson Free Press.

Why are trial attorney Paul Minor and former Mississippi state judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield currently in federal prison? Alexandrovna and Kane point to Minor's courtroom victories over tobacco companies in the 1990s. Teel and Whitfield appear to have been "collateral damage" in an effort to shut down Minor's financial support of Democratic causes.

Minor represented plaintiffs in a case that wound up with the four largest American tobacco companies paying $246 billion to states in the largest civil settlement in history.

The tobacco companies--R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, Lorillard, and Philip Morris--were not happy to see Minor make millions from the deal and then become a generous contributor to Democratic candidates and campaigns.

Republican supporters of the tobacco companies were even less pleased. GOP bitterness over the tobacco settlement led to a tort-reform movement, designed to give corporations the upper hand in legal battles with consumers. At the center of this movement was Karl Rove, who had served as a consultant for tobacco giant Philip Morris.

Rove helped Republicans take control of state courts in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama. And when George W. Bush became president in 2000, it appears that Rove launched a plan to investigate and prosecute prominent progressives in the Deep South. Two of those progressives were Paul Minor in Mississippi and Don Siegelman in Alabama.

Alexandrovna and Kane show how the two states at the Heart of Dixie were entertwined in the GOP strategy. Siegelman's plan for an education lottery in Alabama was considered a threat to gambling interests in Mississippi. So disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff led a campaign to raise money to defeat Siegelman's plan and protect the gaming interests of Mississippi Choctaws, an Abramoff client.

Meanwhile, a plan was afoot in Mississippi for Republicans to take over the governorship for only the second time since Reconstruction. Paul Minor, a major Democratic donor and a leading opponent of tort reform, was under federal investigation, and word of that probe leaked at the height of the governor's race.

That helped ensure that Haley Barbour would defeat Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in the governor's race.

And what about Barbour's background? He's a former lobbyist for Philip Morris and Big Tobacco.

Since taking office in 2004, Barbour has called a special legislative session to ban class-action lawsuits and cap damages in most tort cases. He also won a lengthy court battle to withdraw funding from a program that had been successful in reducing smoking among middle- and high-school students.

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