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The United States Attorneys Scandal Comes to Mississippi

By Adam Cohen, New York Times

Paul Minor is the son of Bill Minor, a legendary Mississippi journalist and chronicler of the civil rights movement. He is also a wealthy trial lawyer and a mainstay of Mississippi's embattled Democratic Party. Mr. Minor has contributed $500,000 to Democrats over the years, including more than $100,000 to John Edwards, a fellow trial lawyer. He fought hard to stop the Mississippi Supreme Court from being taken over by pro-business Republicans.

Mr. Minor's political activity may have cost him dearly. He is serving an 11-year sentence, convicted of a crime that does not look much like a crime at all. The case is one of several new ones coming to light that suggest that the department's use of criminal prosecutions to help Republicans win elections may go farther than anyone realizes.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold hearings shortly on whether the Justice Department engaged in selective prosecution in two other cases: when it went after Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, who is serving more than seven years in prison on dubious charges, and Georgia Thompson, a Wisconsin civil servant who was freed after serving four months on baseless corruption charges.

Mr. Minor, whose firm made more than $70 million in fees in his state's tobacco settlement, suspects it was his role in the 2000 Mississippi Supreme Court elections that put a target on his back. The United States Chamber of Commerce spent heavily to secure a Republican, pro-business majority, while Mr. Minor contributed heavily to the other side.

The chamber was especially eager to unseat Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., a former trial lawyer. He was re-elected after a hard-fought, high-spending campaign. Then the prosecutions came from the politicized Bush Justice Department.

Mississippi's loose campaign finance laws allow lawyers and companies to contribute heavily to the judges they appear before. That is terrible for justice, since the courts are teeming with perfectly legal conflicts of interest. It also creates an ideal climate for partisan selective prosecution. Since everyone is making contributions and nurturing friendships that look questionable, a prosecutor can haul any lawyer and judge he doesn't like before a grand jury and charge corruption.

The Justice Department indicted Justice Diaz and Mr. Minor on an array of unconvincing bribery and fraud charges. Justice Diaz was acquitted of all of them. The federal prosecutors then brought tax evasion charges against him. Justice Diaz was acquitted again and still sits on the Mississippi Supreme Court.

Mr. Minor was not as lucky. He beat many of the charges in the first trial, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on others. Federal prosecutors went after him again, and this time Mr. Minor was convicted on vague allegations of trying to get "an unfair advantage" from judges - the very thing Mississippi's lax campaign finance laws are set up to allow.

The case fits a familiar pattern. The corruption Mr. Minor was charged with was disturbingly vague, as it was with Ms. Thompson, whose only "crime" was awarding a contract to the lowest bidder, and Mr. Siegelman, who was convicted for fairly routine political behavior.

Mr. Minor's prosecution, like the others in this scandal, gave a big boost to the Republican Party. The case intimidated trial lawyers into stopping their political activity. "The disappearance of the trial-lawyer money all but wiped out the Democratic Party in Mississippi," Stephanie Mencimer reports in her book, "Blocking the Courthouse Door."

There also appears to have been pro-Republican favoritism. Mr. Minor's lawyers say prosecutors were not interested in going after similar activity by trial lawyers who contributed to Republicans. Time magazine recently reported that in Alabama, one of the main witnesses against Mr. Siegelman also told prosecutors of possible corruption involving Jeff Sessions, a Republican senator from Alabama, but they did not pursue it.

And there is the matter of timing. The prosecution of Mr. Minor and Justice Diaz came just as Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, was running for re-election against Republican Haley Barbour. The Republicans spent heavily to tie Mr. Musgrove to Mr. Minor, and Mr. Musgrove was defeated.

In Wisconsin, Ms. Thompson's trial coincided perfectly with Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's re-election campaign, and Republicans tried to link Doyle to Thompson. Mr. Siegelman's prosecution looks like it was timed to prevent him from becoming governor again. It may be that all three of these cases were simply attempts to use the Justice Department to get Republican governors elected.

Ms. Thompson was fortunate to get a good federal appeals court panel, which ordered her released. Mr. Minor and Mr. Siegelman may not be so lucky. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and many other key players in the United States attorneys scandal are gone, but Congress has a lot more work to do in uncovering the damage they have done to the justice system.


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