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Federal judge mulls resentencings in Minor bribery case

March 12, 2011

By HOLBROOK MOHR
Associated Press

JACKSON (AP) — The resentencing hearing for imprisoned former attorney Paul Minor and two former Mississippi judges has been delayed until Tuesday so the presiding judge can consider requests to vacate the convictions.
U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate heard arguments Friday on defense motions to throw out the convictions and said he will rule on the matter Tuesday. If he refuses to vacate the convictions, Wingate said he will re-sentence the men that afternoon.
Minor and former Harrison County judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield must be resentenced because a federal appeals court dismissed some of the judicial corruption charges on which they were convicted in 2007. The court upheld honest services fraud convictions against each of the men and Minor’s racketeering conviction.
Their attorneys are now asking Wingate to throw out the convictions on the remaining counts.
One of Minor’s attorneys, David Debold, argued Friday that the convictions should be thrown out for several reasons: he said the case used Mississippi law rather than federal statutes to charge the men with bribery; that recent appellate court rulings have limited the scope of so-called honest services fraud crimes; and that jury instructions used during the trial were improper.
“We’re hopeful the court will consider all of the arguments and grant the motions,” Debold said after the hearing in U.S. District Court in Jackson. “We think we’ve made some strong arguments why the convictions should be vacated.”
Federal prosecutor Liza Collery said the timing and filing of the motions was improper. She also argued that the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions on those charges when it dismissed the others in December 2009.
One of the main issues raised by the defense is the claim that the case was not built on bribery, and was instead based on matters like concealment. Debold said recent court rulings narrow the scope of honest services fraud and concealment no longer applies.
Collery, arguing for the prosecution, said concealment was just an element of a bribery scheme. Prosecutors say Minor orchestrated a complicated scheme in which he guaranteed loans for the judges, then used cash and third parties to pay off the loans. The judges then allegedly ruled in his favor in civil cases.
“All of these offenses, whether they use the term bribery or not, have bribery at the core,” Collery said.
Minor, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was one of Mississippi’s most successful plaintiffs attorneys at one time, amassing a fortune from tobacco, asbestos, medical malpractice and car safety lawsuits.
Minor, 64, is serving an 11-year sentence. Whitfield, 48, is serving nine year sentence. Teel, 60, was sentenced to five years and 10 months.
It’s not clear how much their prison time could be reduced at re-sentencing.
Minor and the judges were brought into in court Friday in shackles and orange prison jumpsuits.
Teel’s attorney, federal public defender George Lucas, asked Wingate to allow his client to visit with Teel’s wife. Attorneys for the other defendants asked for similar visitations — Whitfield with his son and Minor with his son and daughter.
Wingate allowed them to visit in a witness room after the hearing, though they were prohibited from physical contact.
During the hearing, Wingate also declined a request by Nancy Swan of Mobile, Ala., to testify during the re-sentencing phase, if the convictions are allowed to stand. Wingate said he didn’t know what Swan wanted to say, but noted that both prosecutors and the defense said it wasn’t relevant to the case. Wingate has also refused her request to testify in 2007.
Swan told The Associated Press that Minor was her attorney in a personal injury case in which Whitfield was the judge. She said the men conspired to hurt her case. She also claimed to be the “informant” who first contacted the FBI about alleged misconduct.

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