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Conviction of Minor, judges upheld by Wingate

JACKSON — A federal judge yesterday refused to throw out the convictions of imprisoned ex-attorney Paul Minor and two former judges.

U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate heard arguments on the defense motions but said if there was any error in the judicial bribery trial, it was harmless.

“The jury found facts establishing guilt,” Wingate said.

Now, Minor and former Harrison County judges Wes Teel and John Whitfield must be resentenced because a federal appeals court vacated their bribery convictions in 2009. The appeals court upheld other convictions, including honest services fraud against each of the men and racketeering against Minor.

Minor has long said he did nothing wrong. He said the loans were meant to help friends in times of need and that he expected nothing in return. He was sentenced to 11 years.

Teel was sentenced to nearly six years in the case. Whitfield was sentenced to more than nine years.

Wingate heard pleas from attorneys for both that the two ailing former jurists be sentenced to time served. All three have served about 42 months of their sentences.

Wingate made no ruling yesterday and recessed court until 10 a.m. today at which time he’ll hear from Minor’s lawyers.

Attorneys for both men said they were in poor health. Teel had suffered a heart attack shortly after entering prison in December 2007 and had heart surgery in January 2008.

Whitfield suffers from for Crohn’s disease. There is no cure for Crohn’s and the causes are unknown. With the disease, the immune system goes awry, causing inflammation in the intestinal wall. The disease is controlled by drug treatments.

“I’m regretful,” Till told Wingate. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I really would like to go home.”

Whitfield said he also was remorseful for what led to his conviction.

“Had I followed my code of ethics… I wouldn’t be before you today. I apologize for the stain I have placed on the judiciary,” Whitfield said.

The attorneys said both men have jobs waiting for them if they are released from prison and have families who need them. The government, however, asked for the maximum sentence for all three. Assistant U.S. Attorney Dave Fulcher told Wingate that following the 2006 federal sentencing guidelines would result in each defendant getting longer prison terms.

“We recognize that the sentencing guidelines are advisory. We acknowledge your discretion in this,” Fulcher told Wingate.

However, Fulcher said the crimes were serious and the government would be consistent in asking for the longest sentences available.

“All these defendants put justice (up) for sale,” he said.

Fulcher said the pleas for leniency “do not overwhelm the facts of this case.”

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. The defense contends that recent court rulings narrow the scope of honest services fraud and concealment no longer applies.

Prosecutors said concealment was just an element of a bribery scheme. They 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 ruled in his favor in civil cases.

Defense lawyers have long criticized honest services laws as too vague and a last resort of prosecutors in corruption cases that lack the evidence to prove money is changing hands. The Supreme Court largely agreed in a 2010 ruling that the honest services laws were too broad.

The law says it’s a crime for a public official to deprive citizens of honest services while in office, and the Supreme Court had found problems with the law in the conviction of former Enron chief Jeffrey Skilling. The Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors can use the law only in cases where evidence shows the defendant accepted bribes or kickbacks.

Source: AP


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