Trial approaching too fast for Scruggs

John O'Brien Dec. 17, 2007, 4:47pm



OXFORD, Miss. - Indicted trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs' defense team said Monday that it needs more time to prepare an adequate defense against accusations that Scruggs attempted to bribe a state judge.

John Keker of Keker and Van Nest in San Francisco filed a motion for continuance in the case against Scruggs and three others, asking that the Jan. 22 trial date be postponed by 90-120 days.

"Defendants respectfully request this continuance in order to permit them to obtain and inspect adequately all discovery materials that will be produced by the government, to ensure counsel's proper attention to the preparation of pretrial motions, and to allow for effective preparation for trial," Keker wrote.

Scruggs' three co-defendants (son Zach and attorney Sidney Backstrom of the Scruggs Law Firm and former state Auditor Steven Patterson of Balducci and Patterson) filed the same motion. Timothy Balducci, the fifth charged in last month's indictment, pleaded guilty to a count of bribery and is cooperating with federal prosecutors.

The indictment said the five conspired to bribe Lafayette Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 to compel arbitration in a $26.5 million attorneys fees suit. The attorneys fees were earned in a settlement reached by state Attorney General Jim Hood and State Farm Insurance Cos. in Hood's Hurricane Katrina suit.

Scruggs has long had ties to the Attorney General's Office in Mississippi. His firm earned $1.4 billion when it was hired by former Attorney General Mike Moore to negotiate the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in the late 1990s.

He has been a campaign contributor to Hood, as has Balducci and Backstrom. Hood said their indictments will not affect his case against State Farm and four other insurance companies. He alleges they misrepresented to policyholders the amount of damage done by wind (covered by the policies) and water (covered by a national program).

Scruggs' firm recently stopped handling Katrina cases.

Keker wrote that he needs more time to become familiar with any evidence against Scruggs, such as 124 phone calls recorded on CDs and a 90-minute recording that contains statements by four of the defendants.

Also, Keker says the government has not provided to the defense any audio or video recordings made in Lackey's chambers or any material seized in the Nov. 27 raid on Scruggs' office and the Dec. 10 raid on the Langston Law Firm, which is helping to represent Scruggs.

Last week, Portland, Ore., insurance attorney David Rossmiller, a partner at Dunn Carney who has been analyzing the Gulf Coast's insurance situation for Legal Newsline, predicted that Keker would ask to push the trial date back to more familiarize himself with the case.

He also said that when a trial occurs, it "will be a blowout, three weeks or longer."

Scruggs faces up to 75 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines. Keker added that he needs time to fine expert witnesses and prepare pretrial motions.

"This case has been pending for less than three weeks, and this is Defendants' first request for a continuance. Thus, the public's -- and the Defendants' -- undeniable interest in the speedy trial of criminal cases will not be significantly burdened by this request," Keker wrote. "Furthermore, none of the Defendants is being detained, and the government has not designated any of the Defendants as posing a danger to themselves or others in the community."

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