View Full Version : Mississippi judge, prominent coast attorney indicted on federal charges


danielle
07-25-2003, 10:33 PM
Mississippi judge, prominent coast attorney indicted on federal charges


By JACK ELLIOTT JR.
The Associated Press
7/25/03 8:34 PM


JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- A Mississippi Supreme Court justice and a wealthy attorney who helped land the state millions in tobacco settlement money were among five people indicted Friday on federal fraud and bribery charges.

Biloxi attorney Paul Minor is accused of funneling hundreds of thousand of dollars to Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., Diaz' former wife, Jennifer, and to two lower court judges. In return, Minor allegedly received favorable treatment for Minor and his clients in cases involving multimillion dollar judgments.

The 16-count indictment, which also named former Harrison County Judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield, says the defendants schemed "to defraud and deprive the state of Mississippi and its citizens of their right to the honest services of the judges performed free from deceit, bias, self-dealing and concealment."

Minor is charged with racketeering and bribery in connection with guaranteeing and then paying off loans to the three judges, who are accused of subsequently ruling in favor of Minor's clients in return for the money.

The indictment says the loans and gifts were bribery and occurred between 1998 and the time of the indictment.

Minor faces $3.75 million in fines and 120 years in prison. Oliver and Jennifer Diaz, Teel and Whitfield faces fines of $3.5 million each and 100 years in prison each.

Diaz is the first Supreme Court justice to be indicted in Mississippi since 1995.

Diaz, 43, of Biloxi, is a former state lawmaker once considered among the most promising up-and-coming Republicans in the state. Mississippi judicial candidates run without party labels.

Diaz has taken a leave of absence from the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said.

Diaz's lawyers said in a statement the judge had done nothing wrong: "Although he has been accused of improper dealings with a hometown friend, attorney Paul Minor, the records of the Mississippi Supreme Court show that Justice Diaz voluntarily recused himself from participating in any of Mr. Minor's law firm's cases before the Supreme Court ...."

Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government, said the question now, with the federal grand jury still in session, was where the next shoe would fall.

In June, The Sun Herald newspaper reported that federal agents were possibly looking into multimillion dollar jury awards in Jefferson County and had subpoenaed the records of a Fayette drug store.

The court system in the southwest Mississippi county has become known in recent years for its large jury awards and settlements. One critic, the American Tort Reform Association, has called the county a "judicial hellhole."

The big dollar awards led the state Legislature last year to enact tort reform measures.

"What that (the indictment) does to me, of course, is clearly ties the things that the judges on the Gulf Coast are accused of to the overall tort reform issue," Wiseman said. "It certainly produces a link."

Among the accusations in the indictment:

--Minor guaranteed loans totaling $140,000 to Whitfield and gave him money to pay off the loans. Whitfield subsequently awarded a client of Minor's, Archie Marks, $3.75 million in a judgment against Diamond Offshore for an injury Marks suffered while working on an oil rig.

The judgment was later reduced by $2 million by the state Supreme Court, a decision in which Diaz didn't participate.

--Minor guaranteed a $75,000 loan and giving checks and cash to Diaz and Jennifer Diaz.

--Minor gave $45,000 through a third party to Diaz's election campaign when he was running for the Supreme Court in 2000. Beginning in 2001 and continuing until sometime in 2002, Diaz lived rent free in a Biloxi condominium owned by Minor.

--Minor guaranteed a loan of $24,500 to Teel in return for favorable treatment in cases pending before Teel's court. Minor, through an intermediary, paid off the loan for Teel. Teel subsequently oversaw a settlement conference in which a client of Minor's was awarded $1.5 million and Minor got $594,000 in attorney's fees.

Minor, 55, a trial lawyer, made millions in several landmark cases, including one against big tobacco companies.

Minor's attorney Jim Neal said his client "will enter a plea of not guilty. He and his family ask everyone to remember that these are allegations only and not proof of anything."

Prosecutors have been investigating whether attorneys paid off loans to judges through The Peoples Bank of Biloxi and Merchants & Marine Bank in Pascagoula. They subpoenaed records from the Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals and local courts on the coast.

Diaz was appointed to the Supreme Court in March 2000 by Gov. Ronnie Musgrove to replace a justice who had died. Diaz won election in November 2000 to an eight-year term that would run through January 2009. He served in the Mississippi House from 1988 to 1994, when he won a seat on the Appeals Court.

The last time a member of the Supreme Court was indicted was in 1995. Justice Chuck McRae was indicted for drunken driving, a misdemeanor, by a grand jury in Rankin County. McRae later pleaded no contest to a complaint separate from the grand jury indictment shortly before he was to go to trial.