Gulf Coast lawyer Paul Minor gets 11 years in prison for bribing Miss. judges

Published 12:09 am Sunday, September 9, 2007

JACKSON (AP) — Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor was an ambitious young lawyer when he tried his first case in a federal courtroom 33 years ago. But on Friday, in the same courtroom, he was a convicted felon being sentenced for bribing two judges.

Minor, 61, was once considered among the top trial lawyers in the country, amassing a fortune from tobacco, asbestos, medical malpractice and car safety lawsuits. But he was convicted in March of bribing two former Harrison County judges.

Before his sentencing on Friday, Minor lamented his fall from the pinnacle of the legal profession.

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“What is so pathetic is that in a few hours my legal career will end in the very same place it began,” Minor said, standing at the court podium in an orange jumpsuit.

He was sentenced to 11 years and more than $3 million in fines and restitution. He will get credit for the year he already has served in jail for violating conditions of his bond.

Before being sentenced, Minor asked U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate for leniency: “Give me the opportunity to serve society so when I die, my tombstone does not read, ‘Here lies the man who rotted his last years in jail.'”

Later, in handing down the sentence, Wingate told Minor: “You distinguished yourself in the practice of law. Speaking metaphorically, Lady Justice must be sobbing.”

Minor was convicted on charges ranging from racketeering to bribery. Former Chancellor Wes Teel and former Circuit Court Judge John Whitfield were convicted of mail fraud and bribery.

Whitfield was sentenced to nine years and two months. He was also ordered to pay a $125,000 fine. Teel was sentenced to five years and 10 months. There was no fine.

The three men were tried and sentenced together by Wingate.

Minor’s lawyer, high-profile Washington attorney Abbe Lowell, told reporters on the steps of the federal courthouse in Jackson that the men will appeal their convictions.

“The various decisions Judge Wingate made will keep the appeals courts busy for a long time,” he said.

Lowell had asked Wingate for leniency, urging him to consider Minor’s wartime service in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery, and his contributions to charitable organizations.

Wingate, the chief U.S. district judge for the southern half of Mississippi, said he was saddened by the case.

“You were clearly a hero, it seems to me, during Vietnam,” Wingate said to Minor.

Wingate also fined Minor $2.75 million and three years supervised probation after his release. Whitfield was fined $125,000. Minor and Teel were jointly ordered to pay $1.5 million in restitution to USF&G Insurance Co. That amount was based on a settlement between the insurer and one of Minor’s clients that had a case before Teel’s court.

After the sentence was read, Minor turned to smile and nod at his family in the courtroom. He later lowered his gazed toward the floor and occasionally shook his head from side to side.

Dave Fulcher, one of the federal prosecutors in the case, said the sentence “reflects the seriousness of the crimes.”

“As Judge Wingate said, the defendants put justice for sale and the sentence is a deterrent to anyone who might consider corrupting the judicial system,” Fulcher said.

Minor and his two co-defendants have long claimed they were the victims of a Republican vendetta because of Minor’s support of Democratic causes.

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Olive Diaz Jr., who was also accused in the bribery scheme but acquitted in a previous trial, echoed that sentiment outside the courtroom.

Diaz, who served seven years as a Republican in the Mississippi House of Representatives before becoming a judge, said the trial “is a result of a political prosecution.”

“When the federal government begins to politically prosecute, everyone should be afraid,” he said.

During the sentencing hearing, Minor thanked Wingate for having put him in jail last year. Minor was sent to the Madison County Jail in September 2006 for allegedly violating the terms of his pretrial bond, in part, for excessive drinking.

Minor said his time behind bars had helped him realize that it’s time to deal with a long struggle with alcoholism.

“It has helped me to look deep, deep inside myself,” he said, drawing tears from family members and friends in the courtroom. “While being shackled like a dog … is horrible, there are positive things that can be gained.”

Teel and Whitfield also asked for short sentences, both citing family obligations. Teel’s wife has multiple sclerosis. The couple’s only son, former Harrison County jailer Ryan Teel, was convicted last month for his role in the beating death of an inmate.

Whitfield has three sons, the youngest of whom is still in school. Their mother died last year. The judge allowed Whitfield and Teel to report to prison Dec. 27 so they would have time to get their affairs in order.

The three were indicted in 2003. This was their second trial, with the first jury unable to agree on most of the charges.

Minor was convicted of guaranteeing $140,000 in loans to Whitfield in 1998, then using cash, a third party and a backdated promissory note to try to conceal the fact that Minor paid off the loan. Whitfield awarded Minor’s client $3.6 million in a lawsuit. The Mississippi Supreme Court later reduced the award to $1.6 million.

Minor was also accused of guaranteeing a loan of $24,500 to Teel the same year. Prosecutors said Teel forced through a $1.5 million settlement in the USF&G case.

Minor acknowledged guaranteeing loans for Teel and Whitfield, but claimed he was only helping friends who had fallen on hard times and that he expected nothing in return.