Jury deliberates in Miss. judicial scandal

by Walter Olson on August 7, 2005

Mississippi’s long-running judicial corruption trial is now in the hands of a jury. “The case has shown about $300,000 in loans, cash and third-party payments flowing from a wealthy lawyer to a state Supreme Court justice and local judges and apparent disregard of state campaign-finance and ethics rules.” (Geoff Pender, “A legal eye”, Biloxi Sun-Herald (henceforth BSH), Aug. 4; Julie Goodman, “Power, expertise convene in trial”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (henceforth JCL), Aug. 1; Holbrook Mohr, “Defense lawyer denies unfair link between judges, attorney”, AP/BSH, Aug. 5; Julie Goodman, “Deliberations begin in Diaz fraud case”, JCL, Aug. 6).

The indictments in the case were handed down after a federal investigation found that prominent plaintiff’s attorney Paul Minor had funneled money and services to several local judges; at the trial, lawyer Bobby Dallas testified that Minor urged him to channel $20-40,000 to state Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., implying a connection between such assistance and Diaz’s help in preserving a multi-million-dollar award for one of Dallas’s clients before the high court. (“Lawyer says he was pressured to give money to Miss. justice”, AP/Picayune Item, Jul. 7). Diaz’s lawyers pointed out at trial that their client did not rule on any of Minor’s own cases before the court, while prosecutors sought to establish that Diaz removed himself from one large such case only after headlines had appeared announcing a federal investigation of his dealings with Minor (Geoff Pender, “Diaz’s actions, inactions probed”, BSH, Jun. 29; Julie Goodman and Jimmie E. Gates, “Diaz defense: No evidence of corruption”, JCL, Jul. 3).

As the trial neared its end, Judge Wingate dismissed solicitation of bribery and extortion charges against Diaz, leaving four remaining counts against him, and one solicitation of bribery charge against Minor, leaving more than a dozen counts against him. Wingate said prosecutors had failed to establish that Diaz knew of conversations in which Minor allegedly applied improper pressure on attorneys to donate to Diaz. (“Judge dismisses bribery count in judicial bribery trial”, Picayune Item, Aug. 3). Former Circuit Judge John Whitfield and former Chancery Judge Wes Teel are also defendants along with Minor and Diaz, both accused of receiving improper payments from Minor.

Neither side called Richard (“Dickie”) Scruggs as a witness, although colorful testimony emerged about his support for the Mississippi judiciary:

Scruggs’ personal secretary, prosecution witness Charlene Bosarge, supplied a bag of cash to Jennifer Diaz [then-wife of Justice Diaz] for the campaign, Jennifer Diaz told FBI agents.

During the April 13-14, 2005, FBI interviews, Jennifer Diaz said Scruggs and Bosarge promised more cash if they could find names to go with it for state campaign disclosure forms. Beginning in 1999, state law limited Supreme Court contributions to $5,000 per person.

Neither side called Jennifer Diaz as a witness, either. (Anita Lee, “Minor defense: Scruggs took lead role in backing Diaz campaign”, BSH, Jul. 29) A major defense theme was that the failure of the prosecution to bring charges against Scruggs proved its political motivation (the prosecutors can’t win, since when charges against Scruggs were in the air they were accused of being politically motivated)(“Government withheld info in Diaz trial, defense says”, AP/JCL, Jul. 28; Anita Lee, “FBI notes steer strategy in judicial trial”, BSH, Aug. 2). According to testimony from Jackson attorney Danny Cupit, Scruggs attempted to convince then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2000 to appoint Judge William Myers to a vacancy on the state high court; Myers had presided over the tobacco-Medicaid suit that made Scruggs a gazillionaire. (“Lawyer says he was pressured to give money to Miss. justice”, AP/Picayune Item, Jul. 7).

Supporters of the various defendants turned out in numbers in the courtroom, among them former state Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae (Anita Lee, “Judge issues jury instructions”, BSH, Aug. 4; Geoff Pender, “Ex-Justice McRae turns up to support Diaz”, BSH, Aug. 5). For our previous coverage of the case, see Oct. 9-10 and Oct. 11-13, 2002; May 7, Jul. 24, Jul. 27, Aug. 19 and Dec. 19, 2003; Feb. 22 and Jul. 12, 2004; and Apr. 30, 2005.