Federal Judge Hears Arguments From Attorneys In Judicial Bribery Case

A judge told prosecutors Friday to explain to defense attorneys how they concluded allegations against their five clients in Mississippi's judicial bribery rose to the level of federal crimes.

U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate's order came after lawyers for Gulf Coast attorney Paul Minor and former Gulf Coast Judge John Whitfield argued prosecutors failed in their indictment to show federal crimes were committed. They wanted the charges dismissed.

Wingate told prosecutors to submit explanations to lawyers for Minor, Whitfield and the other co-defendants - Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., Diaz' ex-wife, Jennifer, and former coast Judge Wes Teel. Wingate said he will rule on the motion to dismiss and others in the case before a July 8 status hearing.

Minor, the Diazes, Teel and Whitfield are accused of participating in a scheme in which Minor allegedly provided cash, loans and gifts to the judges in exchange for favorable decisions. Wingate earlier refused to dismiss charges against Diaz and his former wife.

The five were initially indicted last summer. A new indictment was filed by federal prosecutors in February charging Diaz and Minor with extortion, besides the fraud and bribery allegations. The defendants have all pleaded innocent and face an Aug. 16 trial.

The new indictment added charges that Minor tried to extort money for Diaz from two attorneys whose case was before the state Supreme Court.

A federal law, under which all five were indicted, makes bribery a federal crime when it involves a local government entity that receives more than $10,000 in federal money.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the argument in a Minnesota case that the law must require proof of a connection between the alleged bribe and federal money.

Whitfield's attorney, Michael Crosby, and the attorney for Minor, Abbe Lowell, argued the indictment made no indication, as required in the law, that the two - or any of the others - were ever in direct control of federal money.

Crosby said prosecutors tried to link Whitfield to the federal funds through the Mississippi Administrative Office of the Courts, which handles the day-to-day oversight of the state courts and is the agency through which judges are paid.

The AOC has received some federal money. Crosby said no federal money was handled by Whitfield.

Federal prosecutors said they would show at trial that federal dollars did get into the Harrison County Circuit Court where Whitfield was a judge.

Lowell said prosecutors must show more than just that federal funds went into a court somewhere. He said they must show that the defendants individually had some control over those federal funds.

"They don't allege that,'' Lowell told Wingate.

Wingate said he shared some of the same concerns as the defense attorneys.

"I want to see the reach of the funds'' related to all defendants, Wingate said.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)