Alexandre Dumas' most popular novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo," revolves around the narrative of Edmond Dantès, the captain of a merchant vessel who visits Napoleon on the isle of Elba and where the deposed emperor entrusts him with a letter to a dear friend in Paris. On his return to Marseilles, Dantès sets out to see his betrothed Mercédès. He is unaware that he has a competitor for Mercédès' affections in Fernand Mondego, who has learned of his dealings with Napoleon and has denounced him to the prosecutor, Villefort.
Though the prosecutor at first treats him kindly, suddenly Dantès finds himself gagged, put in irons and hauled off to the notorious island prison of the Château d'If, there to rot for the rest of his life. Dantès does not know that the letter that Napoleon entrusted to him was addressed to Villefort's own father.
Dantès therefore had evidence that would ruin the ambitious young prosecutor's career—and thus the prosecutor struck pre-emptively, coldly and unethically.
At the core of Dumas' novel is the everlasting conflict between ambition, greed and power on one side, and the duties of love and justice on the other. It is a tale of Dantès' struggle for justice against a corrupt prosecutor who wronged him in order to advance his career. But it is also a struggle for the soul of Edmond Dantès: Will his own desires for revenge deform him, or will he manage to let the sunlight of justice shine into his own character?
If someone were to convert "The Count of Monte Cristo" into a story set in modern-day America, the perfect material awaits in Mississippi: Today's Edmond Dantès is named Paul Minor, a man today in federal prison in Oklahoma. If his story is the essence of Dumas' great venture, Minor's is a story of high politics, of prosecutors who are moved not by a commitment to justice, but a craving for raw power and the advancement of careers.
It is also a story of corrupt judges and corrupted justice, but in the great Dumas tradition, we will learn that the stories of corrupt judges and justice are not, in the end, those spun on the surface and fanned in the newspapers—the inner story is quite different, involving a reversal of expectations.
As in Dumas' tale, let us consider that the crime may not be what the public hears as a crime—the charges leveled at the prisoner.
The question of who benefits from the corruption of the justice system is the key to understanding our tale. Thus I propose to start with the answer. Who profited from the injustice?
Setting the Scene
In 2000, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a major effort to roll back class-action lawsuits and other procedures that were anathema to its major corporate constituency. As detailed in The Wall Street Journal, it identified a half-dozen states as particular problem cases in this regard: Illinois, Mississippi, Washington and West Virginia were high up on its list.
The Chamber's representatives, led by its powerhouse president, Thomas Donohue, solicited major corporate funders who were plagued by class-action suits, tort liability and high damage awards, and asked them to fund a significant election effort designed to defeat attorneys general and judges they viewed as friendly to the trial court bar. Not only would the corporations be anonymous in this endeavor, but the Chamber would do its best even to obscure its own identity and involvement.
As the Chamber pursued its furtive project, it worked hand-in-glove with local Republican parties and networks, channeling its money into the best-bet races, usually those in which a strong Republican was challenging a Democratic incumbent. It aligned itself with a cast of private-practice lawyers close to the Bush administration and the Bush Department of Justice; several of these lawyers were to figure, in short order, as Bush's prosecutors and judicial nominees, or as Republican members of Congress.
Mississippi was one of the Chamber's battleground states. It's small and rural—and at times ranked the poorest state in the nation. But from the perspective of corporate interests concerned about "tort reform," "excessive jury awards" and class actions, Mississippi was close to ground zero. In no other state had the trial bar scored such stellar successes. The Mississippi plaintiff's counsel were at the heart of a massive legal war waged on big tobacco. They had been involved in major suits involving Ford, Firestone and a slew of other leading manufacturers and insurers.
Mississippi trial lawyers, and the judges close to them, made a natural target for the tobacco industry and other major corporate players. The Chamber provided the means of attack. The Chamber flooded Mississippi's judicial races in 2002 with about $1 million. Trying to disguise the source of this money, they channeled it through the just-created Law Enforcement Alliance of America. According to The Wall Street Journal, LEAA prepared and ran expensive, professionally produced attack ads, although ad time was largely booked by the Chamber of Commerce itself. Newspapers looking into LEAA found the Chamber's fingerprints at every turn.
By national campaign standards, a million isn't much, but for Mississippi it was an unprecedented sum.
As the money came in, the incumbent judges and their allies were startled. They believed that the Chamber was violating Mississippi election laws, and they were convinced that the massive infusion of cash would essentially buy the state's judicial elections. They set out to counter it in two ways: First, they secured injunctions from Mississippi state courts to block the advertising from running. The courts in Mississippi agreed: The Chamber had engaged in a subterfuge that violated Mississippi disclosure requirements, so the advertisement was enjoined.
Thanks, Justice Scalia
But then the Chamber of Commerce procured its deus ex machina: It made an appeal directly to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the justice responsible for the Fifth Circuit, which includes Mississippi. Scalia dissolved the state court injunctions, authorizing the Chamber's attack ads to go forward. A Mississippi Republican named Michael Wallace represented the Chamber in this process. (President Bush subsequently nominated Wallace to serve on the Fifth Circuit, but he had to withdraw when the American Bar Association found him to be "unqualified," The Washington Post reported.)
A lawyer in the campaign, who asked that his name not be used, described to me his astonishment: "One afternoon I got a call from a clerk for Justice Scalia, saying, 'The justice is about to rule, and he wants to know if you want to be heard.' I was astonished. I knew nothing about this application, but before we could even start to think about it, it was over. Scalia decided, without hearing us. He dissolved the Mississippi injunctions on the grounds that the Chamber's ads were protected speech, not political advertising. And all this was done on the basis of the Chamber of Commerce's direct approach to Scalia."
Scalia's actions amounted to an extraordinary interference with the state rules governing the electoral process, particularly curious in light of Scalia's commitment to a "new federalism" in which the role of the states in decisions about their own internal affairs was said to be enhanced.
However, Scalia's "new federalism" is subject to a very important corollary: It recedes whenever it clashes with the electoral interests of the GOP. The most striking demonstration of Scalia's "flexibility" can be found in his posture in the Bush v. Gore ruling that threw the 2000 presidential election to Scalia's friend and patron, George W. Bush. (Scalia's own son had been involved in advising the Bush campaign, and no sooner was the new administration installed than his son landed a job as the solicitor of labor, the senior lawyer for the Labor Department.)
Lawyers in Mississippi bristled over another aspect of Scalia's behavior. Of all sitting justices, none comes within striking range of Scalia when it comes to accepting speaking engagements and trips that effectively amount to free vacations at the sponsor's expense. Many of Scalia's travels are linked to persons and organizations closely tied to the Republican Party, most notably the Federalist Society and a number of prominent Republican donors. Scalia travels regularly down to the Mississippi Delta region to go duck and turkey hunting, lawyers note.
One such incident, which he undertook jointly with Vice President Cheney, received wide media attention when Scalia refused to recuse himself from the decision of a critical matter involving Cheney, then provided a vote in Cheney's favor, even as eight of the 10 largest national newspapers called on him to recuse himself.
On his duck-hunting trips Scalia is hosted and entertained by the same figures who were aligned in support of the Chamber of Commerce and its judicial election efforts. Two of his regular shooting partners have been Mississippi Judge Charles Pickering, one of the Chamber's favorite candidates, and Pickering's son, Chip, a Mississippi congressman with a near-perfect record in supporting the Chamber's program.
In 1993, Scalia authored an opinion in which he said that the Minnesota Legislature, and not judges, should make decisions about redrawing electoral districts. But when it came to Mississippi, and a plan that presented a serious problem for Judge Pickering's son, the justice had a sudden and dramatic change of view. He decided in favor of a plan crafted by a group of Republican federal judges.
(Scalia is also linked in news reports to Republican Mississippi Judges Henry T. Wingate and David C. Bramlette, each of whom played a critical role in the Mississippi drama surrounding the judicial elections and the prosecutions that emerged from them.)
Scalia's antics scandalized even Mississippi's rock-ribbed conservative press. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger editorialized: "Small world, isn't it? ... Even a gesture toward impartiality," they wrote, would have stopped Scalia from ruling on the case involving his hunting buddies. "Justice Scalia should have recused himself from Tuesday's decision."
The Bush Justice Department had no issues with Justice Scalia's participation in these cases. It was delighted to be able to count on his vote. But when it came to ethical issues surrounding judges in Mississippi with a reputation for being pro-plaintiff, suddenly the Justice Department's view of ethics and the law changed dramatically. With Scalia backing up the Chamber's campaign by dissolving the Mississippi court orders, the incumbents had only one other option: to scramble quickly to raise funds to match the Chamber's spending and book their own ad time.
They didn't match the Chamber, but in the end, the incumbents were able to field their own advertising—not as professional as the Chamber's, and not as much. Surprisingly, when the votes were counted, the incumbent slate of judges was largely returned; the Chamber's campaign in Mississippi had failed.
A Rovian Strategy
One man, Paul Minor, had stood in resolute opposition to the Chamber's onslaught. A trial lawyer on the Gulf Coast, Minor emerged as one of Mississippi's wealthiest citizens on the strength of fees earned successfully battling big tobacco. The son of Bill Minor, a prominent journalist known for his zealous advocacy of civil rights in the heyday of the movement, Minor served in Vietnam as an army intelligence officer, then came home to become a lawyer. He was a co-founder of South Mississippi Legal Services Corporation and a champion of the cause of the poor and racial minorities across the state, and he was a former president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association.
Minor was also an engaged partisan. He was the leading donor to the Democratic Party and a key supporter of a number of judges in contested races. As the Chamber campaigned for "tort reform," Minor crisscrossed the state pointing to powerful out-of-state corporate interests that were behind the campaign, starting with big tobacco.
Today, because he took steps to counter the Chamber's Mississippi electoral scheme, he is serving an 11-year sentence, and the court fined him $2.7 million and ordered him to pay restitution in the amount of $1.5 million. Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce campaign, which in the view of Mississippi officials had been crafted, assembled and pursued in flagrant violation of Mississippi law, was not simply ignored, but vigorously defended as protected First Amendment "free speech." This was a very strange, and flamboyantly partisan, view of the interests of justice.
The process that was followed matches up with Karl Rove's master plan for reshaping the judiciary in Alabama for the benefit of big business, which Rove and his friends William Canary and Toby Roth had brilliantly implemented 10 years earlier. The original goal had been to replicate the Alabama strategy next door in Mississippi, but after the effort failed, the objective appears to have changed: The goal was now to punish the Mississippi trial lawyers who took on the Chamber and won, and to dry up the campaign-funding resources that were fueling the opposition to the Chamber.
Suddenly the Mississippi trial lawyers and their judicial allies found themselves facing an even hungrier and more powerful foe: the Bush White House Department of Justice. The absurdities of the Justice Department's conduct were not lost on many observers. "I am still not sure what they did was illegal under the weak laws governing such activities, nor am I sure the government really proved its case," observed Clarion-Ledger Editorial Director David Hampton. "It did to the jury, so that's that, but I have my doubts as an observer. Didn't convince me."
"It is my opinion that there was too much of a political smell to this case. The extent the Republican Justice Department went to in going after a wealthy influential Democratic trial lawyer just seemed over the top. I've never seen anything like it. It was extraordinary," Hampton added.
Within a year, the Democratic Party of Mississippi saw its war chest dry up, and by the 2003-04 election cycle, Democrats had raised $450,000–compared to $4 million for the Republicans. Republicans were swept back into control of state offices and, beginning in 2004, the new Republican administration in Jackson began enacting the Chamber of Commerce's entire agenda, starting with "tort reform."
When it came to funding Democratic candidates and causes, prominent Mississippi trial lawyer Paul Minor was a go-to guy. He was a major donor to Democratic candidates for office, and he was against tort reform and staunchly opposed limiting injury awards. Between 2001 and 2004, Minor and his law firm donated more than $100,000 to a range of Democratic causes, from the John Edwards campaign, to the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, to the Democratic National Committee. The New York Times noted in 2004 that Paul Minor was the 10th largest donor to John Edwards, with donations totaling $129,000, and also reported that almost every major attorney donor to the Edwards campaign mysteriously became the target of an aggressive Justice Department criminal investigation.
Thus, in 2002, when FBI agents began looking into the campaign-funding sources of Mississippi judges, Minor's name surfaced in connection with a loan he had guaranteed to help Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz secure for election finance. Ultimately, Minor was convicted of honest-services mail fraud on Sept. 7, 2007. He was charged with having helped Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver E. Diaz Jr. and his family secure loans to fuel Diaz's election campaign by providing personal guarantees. Minor also allowed Diaz to use an apartment he owned.
Diaz stated that he used the apartment only on weekends to visit his children, who were separated from him thanks to a recent divorce, that he shared it with another renter and that Diaz made payments for its use. A series of other witnesses corroborated Diaz's statements on these points.
However, the prosecution did not note any of this in the charges. Indeed, the prosecutors also neglected to point out that the apartment was not solely Minor's—another prominent lawyer was a major shareholder who had made the same sorts of loans that Minor had, and who, unlike Minor, actually had cases in front of the judges in question. The other lawyer, however, makes strong campaign contributions to Republicans.
As the investigation began, a survey of local newspapers—particularly The Clarion-Ledger—shows that Minor and his fellow targets were under heavy assault. The local press began to print articles laden with innuendo and smear, and articles appeared accusing Minor of "corruption" based on information consistently linked to anonymous "sources close to the investigation."
As a practical matter, the information could only have come from the prosecution team. And the timing of the leaks—for instance in 2003, when Haley Barbour returned to Mississippi ready to run for governor for the GOP—seemed to coincide with Republican campaign strategy. The leaks served a double purpose: They "poisoned the well" by predisposing the newspaper-reading citizenry to think that Minor and his colleagues were guilty; and they furnished fodder for the GOP election effort in which high-profile and prominent Democrats were constantly labeled "corrupt."
The prosecution's case aligned with the GOP's Mississippi election strategy on another score as well: intimidate and dry up the trial lawyer campaign contributions that were the lifeblood of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
The actual charges are almost incomprehensible. Several public integrity prosecutors told me they were unfamiliar of any similar case raising charges quite like these, calling them "strange" and "perhaps unique." Most public corruption cases revolve on a quid pro quo: a public official is asked to do something for some form of compensation or reward. But in these cases there is no quid pro quo, and none is alleged. As The New York Times' Adam Liptak observed: "The central charge against the two men is so convoluted that setting it out requires a diagram, if not a family tree: Trying to influence a libel case against Mr. Minor's father, Mr. Minor guaranteed a loan to Justice Diaz's former wife."
Here's my take in short: "Honest service mail fraud" is an effort to conjure a crime that does not exist. The "crime" here is purely political.
First, Mississippi is a state in which the governor initially appoints judges, who then must win an election in their own right. Judicial elections are supposedly nonpartisan, but the shadows of partisan interest hang heavily over the entire process. There is no rule prohibiting attorneys who practice in front of a given judge from donating to, and even advising, that judge's campaign—these happenings are commonplace and drive the entire system.
Given Mississippi's small population, it is not rare for judges and attorneys to regularly interact and maintain close friendships. Both Minor and Diaz opposed the GOP's "tort reform" project, which aimed to materially reduce the potential exposure of manufacturers to large tort verdicts. This made the two natural allies, and offers an explanation for Minor's support of Diaz's campaign.
Second, during the immediate period of the loan, Diaz never voted on a case in which Minor held an interest. However, two years after he accepted Minor's loan, Diaz did join in a unanimous decision favoring Minor's father, a prominent journalist, who was defending a libel case before the state's Supreme Court. Diaz, along with the two lower court judges, was accused of failing to report loans on financial disclosure forms, and failing to disclose to attorneys in the case before them the details of Minor's loans. These two failings, the prosecutors argued, effectively deprived the people of Mississippi of the honest services of their judges.
In fact, the shoe fits perfectly on the other foot. By pursuing an investigation and bringing the charges, the Justice Department was depriving the state of Mississippi of the services of these judges.
In fact, Oliver Diaz had to step down from the bench for a period of several years while he defended the charges brought against him. The charges were ludicrous, and his acquittal was a foregone conclusion. The purpose of the prosecution was to keep Diaz off the bench, and thus remove one Democratic vote, shifting the Mississippi Court's partisan balance. Seen this way, what the Justice Department did was an assault on the political franchise of Mississippi voters and an attack on the state's Constitution, all pursued for partisan political purposes.
But in the prosecutors' view, Minor was guilty of participating in the scheme; hence the charges of honest-services mail fraud, deprivation of honest services and the application of the RICO act against him. The following excerpt from Minor's motion to dismiss clarifies the workings of Mississippi's judicial politics, and the vague line drawn between contributing to a judge's campaign and acting improperly to influence the state's judiciary:
"Those from the side of big business would say that their support for specific judges was for the purpose of changing the overall judicial philosophy of the state and not so that a specific judge would be beholden to them in any case. Those individual attorneys who supported different judges did so for the same reason. This is the tug-of-war when there are popular elections of judges in which attorneys and those with case interests can participate. In the midst of this keen political debate about Mississippi judges and the future of how elections would be influenced by outside business interests, the U.S. Attorney decided to seek an indictment converting Mr. Minor's actions not as his desire to take part in the political process but as his attempt to corrupt judges for his own personal benefit. Again, others were not treated in this fashion, and the question remains 'why?'"
So, the first concern raised by this case is Minor's claim, as noted above, that he was the victim of a selective prosecution.
The second is the conduct and background of the U.S. Attorney Dunnica Lampton, which adds substantial weight to Minor's claims that he was a political victim.
And the third is the mysterious circumstances surrounding the selection of the federal judge and the judge's aberrational conduct in the case.
The Teflon Litigator
As Minor and others lawyers recount, the idea of rushing in to support the judges who came under fire from the Chamber of Commerce started with Richard Scruggs, probably the best known and wealthiest member of the Mississippi trial lawyers bar. Scruggs, like Minor, made loans to Mississippi judges and was also initially investigated by the FBI.
However, there was a critical difference. Scruggs gives money to Republicans. In 2000, for example, he gave $250,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign and the GOP and only $20,000 to Democratic candidates. His wife has given over $500,000 to various Republican causes. More significantly, Scruggs is the brother-in-law of Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott, who at the time was the Republican majority leader in the U.S. Senate.
If Minor's conduct was unlawful, then Scruggs should also have been charged. Indeed, an outsider looking over the file would expect to see Scruggs as the lead defendant in the case. But that's not the way U.S. Attorney Lampton and Public Integrity Section head Noel Hillman saw things. Several people—who have asked to remain anonymous—have told me that Lott aggressively protected Scruggs. Indeed, FBI Agent Matthew Campbell out of the Gulfport field office is reported to have expressed disbelief that the case was pursued against the Democratic donors but dropped against the Republican-connected Scruggs. The Biloxi Sun-Herald reported: "Matthew Campbell early on was a lead agent in the judicial probe, but was reassigned after he questioned Scruggs' ties to Sen. Lott and Attorney General Moore. Campbell wanted to investigate Scruggs, and questioned whether Moore should be involved in the investigation."
The result: Special Agent Campbell, a forensic accountancy expert, found himself reassigned. His new duty station was Guantánamo, where his accountancy skills were unlikely to be of much use, but from where he was not likely to be heard from again.
With Special Agent Campbell off the case, a new FBI agent stepped in. His name was Kevin Rust. Campaign-finance records show that Rust was an active participant in and supporter of the Chamber of Commerce-supported judge, who unsuccessfully contested Justice Diaz's seat in the 2000 election. Under FBI ethics rules, Rust should have been excluded from the case. Instead, he assumed its leadership. Thus, this "public integrity" prosecution started with a systematic and revealing violation of the basic rules of public integrity. And it was just one of a great many ethics infractions to follow.
Why did the Justice Department decide against proceeding with charges against Scruggs? If it was because of Scruggs' connection to Lott, then Senate ethics rules concerning interference with pending investigations and prosecutions were violated. Indeed, several members of Congress are now under investigation because of their abusive involvement in investigations and prosecutions of political rivals at the apparent invitation of the Bush Justice Department. The Sun-Herald quotes Lott as acknowledging having had discussions with the prosecutors about his brother-in-law's case.
Lott quickly corrected his comments as "a mistake." But the circumstances surrounding the case leave many wondering just how mistaken the remarks might have been.
Or perhaps, following the same reasoning that the federal prosecutors used in going after Minor and his co-defendants—in which a sinister motive is imputed to every campaign contribution—the decision not to prosecute simply reflects the current protection payment necessary to secure immunity from the Bush administration's "public integrity" racket. A $250,000 payment into the Bush-Cheney campaign coffers could buy a lot of peace of mind.
U.S. Attorney Lampton never offered a coherent explanation or response to the accusations of selective prosecution. He didn't have to. The federal judge handling the case never entertained or ruled on the motion.
Minor went to court twice. The first trial resulted in a deadlocked jury. When time came for the second trial, Minor found that the judge had decided to change the rules. In the first trial, Minor had offered a great deal of exculpatory evidence. He showed that he had an established practice of making small loans and guaranteeing loans to his friends and colleagues in the legal community who couldn't get them elsewhere. This included a series of loans and loan guarantees he made over a long period of time to black lawyers who had a notoriously difficult time securing credit from Mississippi's racially biased banks.
The evidence showed that Minor's guarantees made for the three judges allowing them to fund their reelection campaigns, were not out of character. It directly offset claims that his intent was corrupt. But as the second trial got under way, the presiding judge announced he had changed his mind about this evidence, and he was going to exclude it. This was a clear and conscious changing of the goalposts in mid-game, designed to help the prosecution get a conviction. And the second go-round produced that result.
What got Paul Minor in trouble is that he facilitated campaign financing for Diaz and two lower-court judges. In the mind of the Justice Department prosecutors, he did not give money because he supported the candidates, nor because they were his friends, nor because he agreed with their judicial philosophy. In the Justice Department's view, his donations were made in order to influence cases he had pending before their courts, and were, therefore, corrupt.
To the Bush Justice Department, it is apparently perfectly appropriate to funnel millions of dollars from mysterious corporate donors to "pro-business" candidates via organizations set up by the Chamber of Commerce—and then to brush off the fact that these donations violated state campaign-finance regulations by claiming that they were protected as "free speech." However, donations by trial lawyers to judges who threatened the constituents of the Chamber of Commerce were perceived as corrupt. It is this two-tiered standard of justice that lies at the core of the Paul Minor prosecution.
The flavor of justice dispensed depends entirely on your politics.
Diaz: Free At Last
Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz is a free man today and back on the bench. But his life—and his decisions—came to a standstill for several years as he defended himself against the Justice Department's thin allegations.
To understand the Diaz prosecution, it's essential to start in Washington, with the man widely viewed as the most powerful Mississippian in the nation's capital. In 2002 Haley Barbour, one of the key figures in recent Republican Party history, told friends and supporters of his decision to return to Mississippi and seek to capture the Jackson statehouse for the GOP in 2003.
Under Barbour's party leadership from 1993-97, the national GOP had captured both houses of Congress—a red-letter event since the GOP had not controlled the House of Representatives for 40 years. Along with Newt Gingrich, Barbour was one of the architects of the new Republican majority that wielded great influence in Congress even during the Clinton years, and he emerged as a powerhouse after Bush brought the GOP back into the White House in 2001.
But lobbying work was Barbour's passion. In 1991 he founded Barbour Griffith & Dunn, LLC, which Fortune Magazine called the most powerful lobbying firm in the United States in 2001. The firm is best known as the lobbyist of choice for the tobacco industry—in 1997 alone, it took in $1.7 million from tobacco sources.
If the tobacco industry had a principal adversary in the '80s and '90s, it might have been Michael Moore—not the documentary film producer, but the then-attorney general of Mississippi. While serving from 1988-2004, he brought the state into litigation against big tobacco in a major way. Dickie Scruggs and a group of trial lawyers based in the Gulf Coast area represented the state. In 1997, Moore settled with the tobacco defendants, who will pay Mississippi about $4 billion over the next quarter century. Scruggs and dozens of other trial lawyers who funded the case split $1.4 billion in attorney fees.
The settlement made a number of lawyers in south Mississippi profoundly wealthy, among them Paul Minor. They were, by and large, supporters of the Mississippi Democratic Party, Attorney General Mike Moore and then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. Trial lawyers were a core constituency of the Democratic Party of Mississippi before 1997, but with the settlement money that came their way that year, they emerged as the party's treasury.
Moreover, the south Mississippi trial bar was closely tied to the Democratic administration in Jackson, providing the key pool for the judicial recruitments, and appointed and elected officials. If the Republicans wanted to deliver an incapacitating blow to their political opposition, there is no question how it could be delivered—by going after the south Mississippi trial bar that funded Democratic campaigns and supplied key Democratic candidates.
As the fall of 2002 approached, and thoughts began to turn to the looming election, something curious emerged. It was learned that FBI agents were busy all over the southern part of the state investigating the dealings of prominent Mississippi trial lawyers. Investigators were examining money given by trial lawyers to judges as loans and campaign contributions. They were also reviewing Gov. Musgrove's judicial appointments, focusing on anything involving south Mississippi trial lawyers.
In the coming election, it appeared that large sums of money from the business community gushed through the Law Enforcement Alliance of America and into the coffers of Republican candidates for office and GOP-favored judicial candidates. Another key source of campaign money tied to casino gambling interests represented by Jack Abramoff. Yet no investigative or prosecutorial resources were going into an examination of these shadowy campaign-funding processes.
On July 25, 2003—90 days before the gubernatorial election between Musgrove and Barbour—the U.S. attorney in Jackson, Dunn Lampton, secured indictments of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, his ex-wife Jennifer, Chancery Judge Wes Teel, former Circuit Judge John Whitfield and attorney Paul Minor. The accusations revolved around loans made to the judges and claims that the loans corrupted their decisions. U.S. Attorney Lampton trumpeted the indictments loudly in the Mississippi media, and they played a key role in the election campaign of Haley Barbour. The GOP used reports about the indictments and criminal investigations prominently in print and broadcast advertising.
Noel Hillman, the head of Justice's Public Integrity Section, occupied the central role in these cases. His presence helped develop media coverage for the cases. Hillman, a political protégé of Michael Chertoff, was touted as a "professional prosecutor," and his involvement was used to show that the cases were not politically motivated. As the case developed, it became apparent that Hillman had taken control.
Indeed, during the trial, Lampton suggested that he had "recused" himself and that lawyers from Washington were managing the case. It appears that this "recusal" was illusory, however. When the point was pushed, Lampton clarified that he had not recused himself, but Peter Ainsworth, the Public Integrity trial attorney who sat as first chair in the trial, told the court that Washington was carrying the case, not the Jackson U.S. attorney's office.
The government's decision to go after Diaz left many lawyers mystified. "I don't get it," one lawyer said. "The bottom line is that Diaz never participated in any cases in which the loan would have made a difference. He recused himself from all (those) cases."
U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott represented Diaz up to the indictment; then Rob McDuff took over. Pigott expressed amazement that the feds were pressing the case even after investigators established that Diaz did not participate in Minor's cases. He couldn't understand why his client was being charged.
Pigott met with Noel Hillman on one of his visits to Jackson in 2004, before the indictment was announced, trying to dissuade him from proceeding. Pigott describes Hillman as being resolute and indifferent to the points that ultimately controlled the case in the mind of the jury. But it could be that Hillman had something else on his mind. These events parallel Hillman's pursuit of a judicial appointment and frequent interaction with the White House in connection with his application.
A Former Republican
A graduate of the University of South Alabama and the University of Mississippi School of Law, Oliver E. Diaz was elected as a Republican to the Mississippi House of Representatives, serving from 1988 to 1994. During this period he also served as city attorney for D'Iberville, Miss. Later Diaz was elected in a non-partisan contest to Mississippi's intermediate appellate court.
While a Republican, Diaz entered the Mississippi Legislature in the same class with Sen. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat. The two became good friends, and their philosophies about life and the law showed they had more in common than their party labels reflected. In March 2000, Musgrove appointed Diaz to fill an unexpired term on the Mississippi Supreme Court.
Mississippi lawyers describe Diaz as a respected judge who was, despite his Republican Party affiliation, viewed as more pro-plaintiff than most. He hails from the Mississippi Gulf Coast region and has close connections with the successful plaintiff's bar centered there.
After his appointment by a Democratic governor, Diaz had to mount an expensive campaign for election to the court in his own right. He sought financial support for the campaign, leading to the Democratic Party's principal contributor and fund raiser in Mississippi, Paul Minor. With financial support from Minor and other sources—largely from the trial lawyers of Mississippi—Justice Diaz was elected to an eight-year Supreme Court term in 2002.
U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton eventually charged Diaz, along with Minor and two other Mississippi judges, of bribery and mail fraud crimes. Specifically, he accused Diaz of accepting loans from Minor with the understanding that Diaz would influence a libel case pending against Minor's father, and of giving Minor an unfair advantage in cases in which he was involved.
From the start, however, local federal prosecutors raised questions about the legitimacy of the case. Diaz never actually participated in the deliberation or resolution of any case involving Paul Minor, either directly or where Minor was counsel. Diaz did participate in the decision of the case involving Minor's father, which was resolved in a unanimous ruling by the Court. At no point did investigators interview any of Diaz's fellow judges about their knowledge of impropriety on his or Minor's part. Had they done so, the interviewer would have learned that Diaz did nothing to attempt to influence the court or his fellow judges about the case.
A number of aspects of the investigation and prosecution of Diaz reflect serious irregularity. In the Supreme Court election, Diaz faced stiff opposition from a Mississippi trial judge named Keith Starrett, who had been backed by GOP interests. Starrett's mentor and friend, who took a deep interest in his election campaign, was none other than Lampton, and Starrett's law secretary was Donna Lampton, a close relative of the prosecutor.
From a distance, the investigation and targeting of Diaz looked suspiciously like payback for an unanticipated election defeat. Moreover, the investigation had proceeded as an inquiry into who financed the judges supported by the Democrats, and how.
The Republicans appeared to be astonished at their poor showing in many of these races, into which large sums of money had flowed from the business community. There was, it seems, a strong interest in shutting off the flow of cash to the political opposition to better their electoral odds.
The most amazing disclosure to come out post-trial goes to FBI agent Kevin Rust. He had managed the inquiry into Diaz, put the case together, testified before the grand jury and sat through the trial. Yet campaign-finance records link Rust to the political campaign of Diaz's opponent, Keith Starrett.
Under applicable ethics rules, neither Rust nor Lampton should have participated in the case at all. Yet it appears that they built and propelled it.
The jury did not think much of the charges and evidence against Diaz, acquitting him on all charges in 2005. But no sooner was the jury's verdict returned than Lampton unsealed another indictment of Diaz: on income tax charges. That case went to trial and resulted in a second acquittal.
The Diaz case reflects another astonishing example of highly partisan justice—timed, presented and calculated to boost the electoral prospects of Haley Barbour. Diaz was acquitted twice, but the clear objective of the prosecution—Haley Barbour's election—was achieved. Barbour become governor in 2004, ousting incumbent Musgrove.
One of the striking aspects of the case is the extremely heavy hand of Noel Hillman, who personally monitored and managed the case. In the past the presence of Public Integrity was taken as a guarantor of "no politics," but in this case in Mississippi, Hillman's involvement amounted to "politics 24/7."
Most clearly, the case was an example of discriminatory prosecution. The investigation was directed with laser-like precision against the major donors of the Democratic Party. No comparable investigation examined Republican Party funding and campaign operations. The message the prosecutors delivered is simple: those who fund Democrats will be targeted and fly-specked; those who fund Republicans have nothing to worry about.
The prosecution served a double function. Democrats were discredited and humiliated during an election cycle, for the benefit of their political opponents. In addition to this, their campaign resources were dried up so that the Republicans secured a further unfair advantage in future elections. These tactics were a pernicious corruption of the political process by politically appointed Justice Department officials posing as its guardians.
Evan Magruder contributed to this piece, which first appeared in Harper's Magazine.
Excellent, excellent piece. I wasn't MS durng all of this, but it makes the general statewide election results more clear. Big Busness won over trial lawyers. Maybe that is why Eaves ran the campaign he did. He knew he didn't have the pockets to compete, so he appealed to a religious base, which I think backfired with many of his truly Democratic constituency.
- Renaldo Bryant
Maybe Minor needs to consult with his spiritual adviser, Cardinal Bernard Law. Oh, wait, Law got banishes to his palace in Rome after being involved in lying about the sexual abuse scandal in Boston!
This is amazing and shocking at the same time. Not that I believe there is anything the repugnants won't do. I hope Minor and all win their appeals and get out of jail some day, and the Democrats when able balance the scale. If judge Wingate is a republican why hasn't the brother been promoted in all this time? I bet its that black ceiling thing or he has real values, not those "family values" some claimed they had until it was crystal clear they didn't.
- Ray Carter
No wonder the writer started out with famous literature about the rich and powerful, because that is what this is all about. Not the victims of injustice, those poor innocent or hapless souls rotting their lives away in a prison for a crime they did not commit. One wonders if this endless stream of words attacking our justice system would have been uttered if Minor had not been a rich trial lawyer or a powerful political contributor. The victims are not the system or even politics for the rich and greedy. The victims of judicial bribery are the people whose cases were sold, for whatever reason. Apparently our press, free press, is not longer free, but has fallen in the trap of serving the privileged, it no longer worries about the rights of the common man. This article is going where it belongs. In the trash with all the other propaganda Minor has been paying for.
- Story Teller
Huh? Did you miss the part where no cases were actually affected by the alleged bribes? Also, did you miss the part where certain people of certain political leanings were prosecuted, but not others? I hate to tell you, but rich people deserve to be treated fairly just as poor people do. And in such a political witch hunt as this, the people who ultimately get screwed are the people the effects of this kind of maneuvering filters down to—like the people who can't afford health care who get saddled with elected officials bought and sold by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This story is not about the perceived perfection of Paul Minor, Oliver Diaz or anyone else. It is about something much, much bigger than that. And you can't simply dismiss that by calling it trash or attacking the messenger.
BTW, all, be sure to read Adam Lynch's companion piece to this story, which contains a recent interview by Dunn Lampton, among others, about his role in the above cases.
Donna, have you ever heard the expression “the rich get richer and the poor get children”? These people at the top whether they be republican or democrat are in a class all to their own. When the day ends they all meet at the country club to have a cocktail. To the normal guy on the street this sounds like a “poor Mr. Minor the Democrat story”. Just like “poor Mr. Gonzales the Republican story”. Put them in a sack and pour them out and they all look alike!
I to want to see the scales of injustice flipped, and the scales of true justice prevail where Mr. Minor, Whitfield and Teel can go home and be restored from this witch hunt of a nightmare. I pray peace for them and their families.
Truthseeker, I simply cannot agree with the idea tha because someone is rich and successful (or even if they are unethical) that it is OK for a Justice Department run by one party to go on a witch hunt after just the ones who are opposed to them politically. That is a very corrupt attitude, and very, very disturbing to think that our government is so drunk with power to think that no one will notice. And that statement applies regardless of what Minor did and did not do, or how much money he has made (I am not against the idea of people being rich and powerful, by the way, as you seem to be). The issue here is whether we have a Justice Department that the administration tried to use for political favor for a particular political party. And considering that we know that's true nationally and in other states, this story should come as no surprise to anyone. The sad part is that the rest of our state's media seem afraid to tell it.
OK, if anyone here thinks that I would not be outraged were a Democratic Justice Department do the same thing to Republicans, you haven't been paying attention in recent weeks here as local Democrats have tried to be at the hell out of me for daring to notice, and then call out, members of their party for hawking cheap anti-immigration rhetoric to get votes. Some day people are going to start to believe me: I don't care what party you are; I am not a partisan.
It was obvious to me during the elections how you felt about political parties. My point is that neither of these parties is getting it done. They are both backed by big money corporate America. Moneyed and powerful is different from rich, depending on what you call rich. I’ll take my quiet nondescript life any day. This is politics at its worst! And the only difference is what way the wind is blowing today. Maybe we need a new party, let’s call it the Street Party.
Oh, I feel you on frustration with the parties. However, that doesn't mean we should overlook what the Republicans have done with the Justice Department in order to target Dems. Frankly, they could be targeting, uh, members of the White Rebel party in an unfair and inappropriate way, and we should be outraged, regardless of what party we prefer. Frankly, good Republicans should be more outraged than anyone that such dark-siders have taken over their party. Many of the darkest have been, or are being, rooted out—but if the entire party is not corrupt, then new leaders should emerge who will make these kinds of witch hunts right. In order to make this right, Republicans should lead by doing two different things: Pursue just as strongly *any* lawyer or judge or elected official in Mississippi who participated in the kinds of things Minor/Diaz were accused us. And take the lead to be sure that Minor and the other judges' sentences fit their crimes. Otherwise, they'll be gathering in a special place in hell to laugh about how they snookered the dumb Dems way back when. And that'll be fun. Do the right thing, people.
It could not be said any better that how Lou Dobbs put it in the introduction of his book 'Attack on the Middle Class'..... ''Corporate America holds dominion over the Republican and Democratic parties through campaign contributions, armies of lobbyists that have swamped Washington, and control of political and economic think tanks and media. What was for almost two hundred years a government of the people has become a government of corporations, and the consent of the governed is now little more than a quaint rubric of our Declaration of Independence, honored as a perfunctory exercise in artifice, and practiced every two to four years in midterm and presidential elections in which only about half of our eligible voters go to the polls''.
Yes, well said. Not that I'm a Dobbs fan. In this case above, once again we see how bad our state's media corps has been. They simply have not told Mississippians so much that we need to know. What has passed as "investigative reporting" in Mississippi—on this issue, on tort reform, on Melton, even on civil-rights coverage—is remarkable when you go back and look at what they did. I don't know if the problem is that the reporters aren't interested in digging out the whole story, if they are not trained to be criticial thinkers, or if it all falls apart when it gets to the editor's desk. I'm guessing a combination of all of the above based on what I've seen. Oh, and they think Mississippians are too stupid to comprehend it all anyway, so why bother doing all that hard, hard work for people who don't appreciate it anyway. I have one answer for that: Go into PR then. Oh, you already are.
All, I recommend clicking into this blog for the posts he's done about the Minor case in particular and Bush's Justice Department's practices in general. Here are his past posts about Minor.
I'm surprised there haven't been more postings on this article -- it's such a great expose of how our political and judicial systems are being manipulated by a subset of the Republican party that see the interests of justice as subordinate to their personal goals in controlling what happens. Doubtless they think that what is good for them is good for the country -- that they know best etc. The voices and interests of the majority are being lost in all this