Justice for Sale: How Big Tobacco and the GOP teamed up to crush Democrats in the South
The Permanent Republican Majority: Part VIAlmost immediately after his appointment as US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi in late 2001, Dunnica Lampton began to investigate key Mississippi Democrats.
Trial lawyer and major Democratic campaign contributor Paul Minor (photo at right) quickly became a target of such an investigation. Minor, one of the largest Democratic donors in the South and the largest in Mississippi, would quickly find himself in the midst of a political firing line.
On July 25, 2003, three months before the Mississippi gubernatorial election, in a case that would stun the legal community, Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., Paul Minor, former chancery court judge Wes Teel and former circuit court judge John Whitfield were indicted on charges of bribery, relating to loan guarantees that Minor had made to the three judges to help defray campaign costs.
There was no state law prohibiting Minor’s contributions, and his trial resulted in an acquittal on some charges and a deadlocked jury on others. However, this trial was immediately followed by the unsealing of fresh charges.
During the second trial, presiding Judge Henry Wingate excluded evidence showing that Minor had a long-established pattern of offering loans or loan guarantees to his friends in the legal community, thus creating the appearance that Minor had helped the three judges in hopes of receiving something in return.
Although prosecutors were unable to prove that Minor had bribed the judges in exchange for favors from the bench, the second trial resulted in a conviction. The jury determined that a quid pro quo had taken place between Minor and two of the judges, Teel and Whitfield, in large part because Judge Wingate had instructed them it was not necessary for the prosecution to prove bribery.
Even though no quid pro quo was proven and there was no state law prohibiting lawyers from making loan guarantees to judges, Minor was sentenced to serve an 11-year prison term and pay over $4 million in fines and restitution.
In a startling similarity to the case of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman — who was also targeted by a Bush-appointed US Attorney — Minor has been denied appeal bond. Both Siegelman and Minor, despite being convicted of white-collar, non-violent crimes, were shackled and manacled, and moved to out-of-state prisons. (See Part I of this series)
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has since released Siegelman as he appeals his case.
In Part V of Raw Story Investigates’ ongoing probe of political prosecutions by Bush appointed US Attorneys, Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, who himself was indicted and acquitted twice in the Paul Minor case, asserted that this new style of Bush justice meant defendants were presumed guilty from the start.
“An individual was singled out for examination from the federal government, and prosecutors then attempted to make his conduct fit into some criminal statute,” Diaz said. “This is not how our system of justice is supposed to operate.”
The beginning: Big TobaccoThe tortuous trail to Paul Minor’s jailing begins in the 1990s, with the set of history-making cases brought against the tobacco industry by states seeking to recover smoking-related health costs. Minor was among those representing the plaintiffs. He joined numerous other trial lawyers and state attorneys general, including Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore.
The tobacco industry settled without going to trial, making a $246 billion dollar payout to the states — the largest civil settlement in history. Among those forced to pay were the four biggest tobacco companies: R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Lorillard Tobacco Company, and Philip Morris USA.
Trial lawyers like Minor earned millions from the deal. Many became generous contributors to Democratic candidates and campaigns, especially in the South. Minor was one of the largest contributors to Southern Democrats and the largest in the state of Mississippi.
Republicans, meanwhile, who had previously enjoyed generous donations from the tobacco industry, were left with little for their campaign coffers.
In 1999 alone, Mississippi trial lawyers donated as much to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ronnie Musgrove as did the Democratic National Committee. Musgrove received $379,500 from trial attorneys, of which Minor donated $112,000.
Minor and his law firm donated hundreds of thousands to Democratic candidates between 2001 and 2004, including, according to the New York Times, $129,000 to then-presidential contender, John Edwards.
The tobacco settlement, however, had serious repercussions for the integrity of US elections, especially in the South.
As reported in Part IV of Raw Story Investigates’ series, Mississippi attorneys have described the behind-the-scenes political fight sparked by the tobacco ruling as nothing short of “war.” Attorneys interviewed for this series of articles have depicted the “gloves off” stance taken by the Republicans against the Democrats in the South as a domestic war between corporations on one side and lawyers representing plaintiffs on the other.
During the early years of the Bush administration, some inside the Republican National Committee allegedly saw Minor as an obstacle to the Southern strategy that was then being planned.
As one Mississippi attorney explained, “In war, you first cut off the supply lines of the enemy troops.” Minor was the “supply” target because of his large donations to Democratic candidates. Judge Oliver Diaz was the “obstacle” to corporate interests seeking to reduce plaintiff cases and keep tribal casinos deregulated.
Rove, Tort Reform, and Big TobaccoKarl Rove, the former Bush Administration White House Deputy Chief of Staff, is alleged by Republican attorney turned whistle-blower Dana Jill Simpson to have played a major role in the prosecution of Don Siegelman in Alabama. Simpson is not alone in her allegations. Many lawyers, politicians, and even active members of the Alabama RNC have made similar allegations during the course of our investigation.
As one Alabama Republican close to the state Republican Party told us, Rove “would never discuss anything on the phone. He would tell you to meet him at some corner and then you get there and sure enough he is standing in the middle of the intersection waving at you.”
Many of those interviewed over the course of Raw Story Investigates’ Permanent Republican Majority series have said that Rove was meeting key Alabama operatives during some of those rendezvous. Rove has also been accused of played a role in the prosecution of Justice Diaz, Paul Minor and others in Mississippi.
The House Judiciary Committee has subpoenaed Rove to testify about his alleged role in the prosecutions. Through his lawyer, Robert Luskin, Rove has repeatedly stated that he wants to testify privately to the House Judiciary Committee, that he will not testify under oath, and that he wants there to be no transcript of his testimony. Rove has been evasive when asked publicly if he was involved in the Siegelman prosecution.
But as Raw Story’s series has shown, Rove’s role in the US Attorney scandal is one that he has played for many years — acting as a broker on deals which were rewarded by corporate donations to Republican coffers.
“Rove is a lobbyist,” said one Washington source close to the investigation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff who wishes to remain anonymous. “He never stopped being a lobbyist.”
Rove met frequently in 2002-03 with Abramoff, other lobbyists, and Alabama campaign operatives — specifically with members of Bob Riley’s gubernatorial campaign. Riley was Don Siegelman’s Republican opponent, and Riley’s campaign advisor, Bill Canary, was Karl Rove’s long-time business associate. Moreover, Bill Canary’s wife, Leura, was appointed by George W. Bush as US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, and it is her office that prosecuted Siegelman.
Ten years before the tobacco settlement, in 1988, Rove had already discovered the advantages of appealing to both voters and corporate donors by painting trial lawyers who had won generous settlements in cases of corporate negligence or medical malpractice as greedy corruptors of the judicial process. With Rove’s encouragement , the “tort reform” movement, aimed at limiting damage settlements, developed rapidly through the 1990s, pulling in corporate contributions and twice helping Rove elect George W. Bush as governor of Texas.
Rove also served a consultant for tobacco giant Philip Morris, which invested heavily in Texas judicial races, helping to secure Republican dominance in that state’s courts by the end of the decade. An internal Philip Morris document from 1995 indicates just how involved big tobacco was in creating the “Tort Reform Project” — although there is no evidence tying Rove directly to that strategy.
Rove even did his best to head off Texas’s participation in the state lawsuits against the tobacco industry. “From 1991 through 1996, while guiding the ascent of Bush to the Texas governorship and during his early years in that office, Rove worked as a $3,000-a-month consultant to Philip Morris,” Salon’s Sidney Blumenthal wrote last year. “In 1996, when Texas Attorney General Dan Morales filed a suit against tobacco companies seeking compensation for state Medicaid funds spent on workers who fell ill because of smoking, Rove conducted a dirty trick against him — a push poll spreading smears about him.”
In 1994, Rove brought his “tort reform” strategy to Alabama, where he worked with GOP operative and lobbyist Bill Canary to elect Republican judges. There he also had his first run-ins with then-Lieutenant Governor Don Siegelman. Alabama’s Republican Attorney General, William Pryor — whose 1998 re-election campaign was managed by Rove — was one of the few state attorneys general who attempted to keep their states out of the tobacco lawsuits and was as a result sharply criticized by Siegelman.
It was Pryor who in early 1999 began the investigations of newly-elected Governor Siegelman which eventually led to his conviction on bribery charges. Canary’s wife, Leura, would federalize the investigation almost immediately after she was appointed to the US Attorney’s office.
Pryor also co-founded the Republican Attorneys General Association, which received money from firms like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds to help elect pro-corporate candidates. The association received a warm welcome in Texas from Rove.
As a result of the tobacco lawsuits, some Republican politicians and tobacco industry lobbyists — such as now-Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour — appear to have become implacable foes of the trial lawyers who had frustrated them and their clients. Barbour returned to lobbying in 1997, after a four-year stint heading the Republican National Committee, and became one of the main lobbyists for Phillip Morris, which spent nearly $16 million that year in lobbying fees.
Although Barbour’s firm failed to disclose many of their financial records from that time, the lobbying fees that were reported by the firm in 1997 show that Barbour Griffith & Rogers received $1.7 million from all four major tobacco companies.
In 1997, Barbour even attempted to sneak a $50 billion tax break for the tobacco companies into a balanced-budget agreement, with the help of Newt Gingrich and Mississippi’s Trent Lott, a plan which was only thwarted at the last moment.
The US Attorney scandal: Purchasing the law and cutting off Democratic campaign fundingThe US Attorney scandal as it unfolded in the South might best be understood as a two-part strategy that simultaneously served both the corporate sponsors of Southern Republicans and the politicians to whom they contributed. One aspect of this two-pronged strategy can be seen as a bribery scandal, in which corporate interests received government favors as a corollary to campaign donations.
In Alabama, the corporate client was the gambling industry. Its lobbyist was the now-convicted felon Jack Abramoff, who brokered deals and funneled money to Republican congressional coffers. Although the money came in from neighboring Mississippi, the issue for Abramoff’s gambling clients was a proposed state lottery that Alabama Governor Don Siegelman was promoting. The gambling industry flooded Republican coffers in exchange for other types of favors, such as the loosening of gambling industry oversight.
In Mississippi, the corporate client was big tobacco — and their chief lobbyist now sits in the Mississippi governor’s chair.
The second aspect of the strategy is the politicization of US law enforcement by the Bush administration, specifically the Department of Justice. The US Attorney scandal is less about the US Attorneys who were fired than about those who remained and are alleged to have used federal law enforcement resources to intimidate Democratic campaign donors.
The demonizing of Democratic candidates instigated by the federal government helped both the Riley campaign in Alabama and the Barbour campaign in Mississippi. Until these prosecutions, both states were led by Democratic governors.
In addition, by targeting Paul Minor, Barbour and his backers ensured a glacial freeze in contributions to Democratic candidates, since other Democratic trial lawyers were afraid of being targeted by the US Attorney’s office as well.
Barbour won the 2003 Mississippi governor’s race by a narrow margin, defeating Democratic incumbent Ronnie Musgrove and becoming only the second Republican governor of Mississippi since the post-Civil War Reconstruction.
However, the forces that led to Barbour’s victory were already on the move more than a year earlier, well before Barbour announced his candidacy.
On Nov. 21, 2002 , UPI reported that the Republican Party was making a special effort to target Musgrove in the 2003 election and that Haley Barbour was widely expected to be the challenger. “Barbour would be a powerful opponent,” wrote UPI. “He has a national network of potential contributors and a close relationship with the GOP’s No. 1 campaign asset, President George W. Bush.”
That summer, the Mississippi state legislature had begun holding hearings on whether to enact tort reform, the strategy promoted by the tobacco industry to limit settlements to plaintiffs which had been so effectively used by Rove to defeat Democratic judges in both Texas and Alabama and pass pro-corporate legislation.
A few months later, Mississippi newspapers began to print leaked allegations that the FBI had launched an investigation of Paul Minor — a leading opponent of tort reform — on suspicion of having bribed several judges. David Baria, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, described the timing as “very interesting,” according to an article by the Associated Press in October 2002.
According to the same article, Bush-appointed Mississippi US Attorney Dunnica Lampton, who was leading the investigation, himself had deep ties to Republican politicians who were in favor of the tort reform plan supported by the tobacco industry.
Lampton also had serious conflicts of interest, among the most egregious of which was that at the time of his investigation, Minor was in the process of filing a lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs against Ergon Inc., a company run by members of the Lampton family.
After stories about the investigation of Minor appeared in the newspapers, Haley Barbour, the tobacco lobbyist who formally announced his candidacy for governor of Mississippi on Feb. 17, 2003, began using these press accounts as a talking point against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Governor Ronnie Musgrove.
In the fall of 2002, additional allegations had begun to appear that Musgrove had also been taking bribes from Paul Minor. The allegations were leaked by anonymous sources from within the investigation by the FBI and US Attorney’s office.
In November, for example, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported that Musgrove was “under scrutiny” for campaign contributions he had received, including $27,125 that came from Paul Minor a month before Musgrove appointed an associate of Minor’s in the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association to the Mississippi Court of Appeals.
Barbour used both the rumored FBI investigation into Musgrove — which never materialized — and Minor’s donations to the Musgrove campaign as a tool to bludgeon his political opponents.
In the 2003 election, the Department of Justice had provided Barbour with all of the ammunition he needed to defeat Musgrove, whom he painted as corrupt, using the federal investigation as proof of these claims.
Minor’s conviction has also provided the GOP with a political weapon that can be used over and over. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, for example, is still using the Minor conviction as a political tool against Musgrove, who is now running for Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s seat in the US Senate.
In early 2004, Haley Barbour took office as governor of Mississippi. Almost immediately thereafter, he called a special session of the legislature to ban class action lawsuits and cap damages in almost all tort cases. In 2006, Barbour won a lengthy court battle to completely withdraw funding from an anti-smoking program which had been highly successful in reducing smoking among middle school and high school students.
Big tobacco had finally accomplished its goals through the use of the political machine.
Family tragedyPaul Minor has been in prison for nearly two years, since the judge ruled in Sept. 2006 that he had violated the terms of his bond by drinking excessively and not abiding by terms of his house arrest. During that time, his wife Sylvia’s breast cancer has spread to her brain and spine. According to family and friends, Mrs. Minor has now had all of her medications stopped except for pain management drugs, indicating that she is in the last stages of her illness.
Minor had started drinking as a result of the two prosecutions and the mounting costs of his legal defense, although he admits it’s been a life-long battle. During the second trial, Minor’s wife Sylvia developed breast cancer. The stress of the personal tragedy and the trials, say those close to Minor, caused him to drink. Wingate ruled that Minor’s drinking was a violation of his bond.
Mrs. Minor’s health has since deteriorated severely. Bill Minor, Paul Minor’s father, who is a well-respected former correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a political columnist for the Clarion-Ledger, says that his daughter-in-law has taken a bad turn.
Joseph Morris Doss, Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Minor family’s pastor and friend, confirmed that Mrs. Minor was no longer being administered medications other than those for pain management.
“She is not doing well,” the bishop said last week. “The cancer has spread from her breasts, to her brain, to her spine, and a mass on the outside of her lung. She is no longer receiving medication for any of the cancer, only for pain and discomfort.”
Minor is currently attempting to obtain furlough to visit his wife. Attorneys close to Minor’s case fear that the furlough request will not be granted due to the political scandal surrounding Minor’s two trials and his subsequent imprisonment.
Larisa Alexandrovna is the Managing Editor of Investigative News for Raw Story and regularly reports on intelligence and national security matters. She has been covering the US Attorney Scandal for over six months. Her essay on the Siegelman case appears in a newly published anthology, Loser Taker All: Election Fraud and The Subversion of Democracy, 2000-2008, edited by New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller, which features a collection of essays from prominent journalists, activists, and scholars. Contact her at [email protected]
Muriel Kane is the Research Director for Raw Story Investigates.
The Permanent Republican Majority Series and Related Raw Story Articles
Part One - The Political Prisoner
Part Two - Exclusive interview with jailed governor’s daughter, Dana Siegelman
Part Three - Running Elections from the White House
Part Four - How Bush pick helped prosecute top Democrat-backed judge
Alabama station drops 60 Minutes expose on Don Siegelman prosecution
Interview with Dana Jill Simpson and alleged Rove smear campaign
Karl Rove’s Next Move: A million dollar home on Florida’s Emerald Coast
Part Five - Mississippi Justice: Bush US Attorney targeted my wife, supporters and friends
Part Six: Break-ins plague targets of US Attorneys
Justice Department investigating two US Attorneys for political prosecution