SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline)-- The nation's trial lawyers are calling for the release of one of their own whom they say was railroaded by the Bush administration at the behest of big business interests.
Project Save Justice, along with the American Association for Justice, are asking plaintiffs' lawyers to urge U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the prosecutions of disgraced former Mississippi trial lawyer Paul Minor and two local judges from the Magnolia State.
The group says that the Justice Department's Criminal Division under the Bush White House was pressured to pursue Minor and then-Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, Jr., Chancery Judge Wes Teel and former Circuit Court Judge John Whitfield.
Speaking to Legal Newsline on Sunday, Diaz, who was acquitted of all charges in 2005, said that there is no doubt in his mind that Minor, who today sits in a federal penitentiary on an 11-year sentence, was wrongfully convicted.
"There are so many allegations of political prosecution in this case," Diaz said in an interview this week at the AAJ national convention in San Francisco. "It just calls out for review by the Justice Department."
Minor, a major Democratic Party fundraiser, was convicted of federal bribery charges related to loans he gave to two judicial candidates, including Diaz. Prosecutors said the money was intended to influence the jurists.
The jury convicted Minor of conspiring with Teel and Whitfield.
In November 1998, Minor guaranteed a $25,000 line of credit for Teel and $40,000 for Whitfield at a Biloxi bank while Teel was a candidate for a judgeship in chancery court of Harrison County and Whitfield was a candidate for re-election to the Circuit Court of Harrison County.
After Whitfield was elected, Minor guaranteed an additional loan for then-Judge Whitfield for $100,000, purportedly for the down payment on a house.
The U.S. Justice Department said the lines of credit purported to be for campaign expenses. But after the judges were elected, Minor, in an effort to conceal the fact that he was paying off the loan himself, used cash and an intermediary to disguise the source of the loan payments.
"The jury's conviction of attorney Paul Minor and former Judges Walter Teel and John Whitfield sends an important message ' we will not tolerate the bribery of judges to influence matters before the court," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Alice Fisher said in a 2007 press release. "The American people expect and demand a system of justice that is free of corruption. We will prosecute those who attempt to buy or sell positions of high public trust for their own financial benefit."
Minor's firm collected more than $70 million in attorney's fees from Mississippi's settlement with tobacco companies. He used some of his wealth from the 1997 Big Tobacco settlement to help fund candidates, including fellow trial lawyer, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.
Under Mississippi state campaign finance law, making loans or securing them is not illegal.
"The interpretation used by Minor's prosecutors to charge that campaign contributions constitute bribery contradicts standing law on this matter," says Project Save Justice. "The legal basis used to bring charges against Minor is contrary to standing law and to what the United States solicitor general has argued in court pleadings."
Diaz said Holder should investigate the then-head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, William Welch, for possible prosecutorial misconduct against Minor.
"They characterized the political donations as bribes," said Diaz, who sat on the Mississippi Supreme Court from 2000 through January 2009. He is now in private practice in Jackson, Miss., with fellow former state Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae.
Diaz noted that a University of Missouri study in 2007 found that some-85 percent of political corruption investigations launched by the Justice Department's Criminal Division during the Bush-era were against Democrats.
Gail Sistrunk, executive director of Project Save Justice, told Legal Newsline that the so-called Shields Report, presented to Congress in the fall of 2007, is very telling.
"People looked at it on its surface." But her group took a deeper look, Sistrunk said.
She said as she began to interview targets of the Justice Department she found that federal prosecutors handled each of the investigations against Democrats very similarly.
"We noticed there was a pattern; it was like a playbook. It was just used in different places -- the same methods, the same FBI tactics, the same threatening of families," she said. "We were appalled and frightened at what has happened to our Justice Department. The United States had the finest justice system in the world, and it has been hijacked -- or pirated -- eight years ago," when President George W. Bush was elected.
She said former Bush political director Karl Rove was the architect of the plan to pursue those who opposed tort reform, among other traditionally Republican efforts.
"Karl Rove's tactics were used on a national level to destroy political opponents," including so-called "soft" or moderate Republicans from state legislators to city councilors and county sheriffs, she said.
"They were prosecuted with the same playbook generally before an election against a very right-wing politician," she said. "It was like a manipulation of our democracy, and they used the Justice Department as a tool to further their own agenda."
As for what she said was a deliberate effort by Bush and big business to pursue political opponents with prosecutions, she said: "It is scary; it's scary as hell."
She said just as the Justice Department investigated the prosecution of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican, the DOJ should probe the prosecution of Minor and other trial lawyers she described as "political prisoners," held because of their efforts to help aggrieved Americans.
"I would love an appointment with Eric Holder-just a 10 minute face-to-face to say, 'I know your hands are full, but we have people in jail who don't belong there,'" she said.
Welch, the former head of the DOJ's Criminal Division, was cited for prosecutorial misconduct for his handling of the Stevens case. He was subsequently reassigned within the Justice Department.
In an article that appeared in The American Trial Lawyer magazine, writer Scott Horton said Minor is in federal prison because he tried to thwart the U.S. Chamber's efforts to equalize Mississippi's notoriously pro-plaintiff judiciary.
"Today, because he took steps to counter the Chamber's Mississippi electoral scheme, he is serving an 11-year sentence, has been fined $2.7 million, and was ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $1.5 million," Horton wrote.
Minor's case is pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. He is asking that the Justice Department investigate his case and not oppose his release from federal prison pending his appeal, a letter to fellow AAJ members said.
In a resolution approved by the AAJ Board of Governors at its winter convention in February voicing their support for Minor, the AAJ leadership body praised Minor for opposing tort reform efforts endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which owns this publication.
"Paul was targeted for prosecution by the Bush Justice Department because he was a trial lawyer and because he was the largest contributor to the Democratic Party in Mississippi and contributed generously to Democratic candidates across the nation and because he boldly stood up against 'tort reform' and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce," the resolution said.
From Legal Newsline: Reach staff reporter Chris Rizo at firstname.lastname@example.org.