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White-Collar Crime

2 Judges & 1 Lawyer Win Bribery Appeals After 5th Circuit Raises New Issue

Posted Dec 11, 2009 6:23 PM CDT
By Martha Neil

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Despite an apparent pleading error by the appellants' counsel, a federal appeals court today reversed the federal program bribery convictions of two Mississippi judges and a trial lawyer. This is likely to shorten their prison sentences, although some other convictions against the three were not vacated.

And they could potentially have their remaining honest services fraud convictions reversed, too, depending on the result of pending U.S. Supreme Court appeals concerning the validity of the federal statute under which they were found guilty, reports the Sun Herald.

“We’re encouraged that the federal bribery is gone and we’re equally encouraged that the Supreme Court is looking at the honest services fraud statute,” says attorney Hiram Eastland, who represents former Biloxi attorney Paul Minor. “This case could still be totally reversed.”

Convicted in 2007 along with former state court judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, Minor also was found guilty of racketeering. However, this conviction could be reversed as well if the honest services fraud conviction is thrown out, because it requires underlying criminal conduct as a predicate, the Sun Herald explains.

On remand back to the trial court for resentencing, as far as Whitfield is concerned, "We're hoping the judge will reduce his sentence by at least nine years," says attorney David McCarty of Jackson, who is representing the former judge. Whitfield was sentenced to 14 years, reports the Clarion Ledger.

The vacated federal program bribery convictions against the three defendants concerned two separate bank loans that MInor guaranteed for the judges "purportedly in connection with their campaigns for state judicial office," recounts the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in its opinion (PDF). A copy of the document is provided by the Y'all Politics blog.

Structured as a short-term "balloon" loan that had to be renewed every six months, after the accumulated interest was paid, "the arrangement allowed Minor to keep Whitfield on a string while Minor held the bank at bay," states the 68-page opinion, explaining the government's theory of the case concerning this one judge. Minor directly or indirectly made the vast majority of the payments on the $140,000 in loans to Whitfield, the opinion notes, and little or none of the money apparently was spent on Whitfield's judicial campaign.

Minor also repaid the $25,000 loan he arranged for Teel, which was deposited into the judge's campaign account. However, neither judge reported the loans as required on campaign disclosure forms, the opinion states.

Each judge subsequently made rulings in a case that allegedly may have been influenced by their financial relationship with Minor. However, the legally required connection between federal funds the judges received and their rulings was not established, the 5th Circuit found.

Although this issue of the required federal funds connection was pursued by the defendants' counsel at trial and not on appeal, the 5th Circuit said it considered reversal of the judges' federal program bribery convictions necessary, on the appellate panel's own raising of the issue, to prevent a miscarriage of justice.

Related coverage:

ABAJournal.com (2007): "Big-Name PI Lawyer Sentenced for Bribing Judges"

ABAJournal.com: "Justices Give Unusual Leeway to Lawyer Attacking Honest Services Law"

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