Admitted felons still battling over attorneys fees

John O'Brien Jan. 28, 2008, 4:31pm


NEW YORK - Two attorneys who have pleaded guilty to judicial bribery charges continue to fight to preserve millions in attorneys fees they earned while representing the State of Mississippi.

Joey Langston and Timothy Balducci on Monday filed a response to state Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant's assertion that the dispute over $14 million should take place in a state court. Bryant had filed a motion for abstention in December, asking U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Arthur Gonzalez to put the proceedings on hold.

"The Abstention Motion is without merit and should be denied," says the filing, signed by attorney Michael Richman of New York's Foley & Lardner. "This Court is the proper forum for adjudicating the Plaintiffs' action to interpret and enforce this Court's own order."

Bryant had insisted in November that state Attorney General Jim Hood represent him in the lawsuit, though Hood, who had hired the Langston firm to pursue the case in 2004, declined. In the case, the State alleged MCI owed back taxes after its predecessor Worldcom collapsed in 2002, resulting in a $100 million settlement.

MCI and the State agreed that $17 million would go to attorneys fees, though the Langston firm, headed by Hood contributor Joey Langston, could only collect $14 million. The extra $3 million went to a $4.2 million donation to the Children's Justice Center of Mississippi.

Bryant asked the center to return the money to the State, and it did. He also asked Langston to do the same, and Langston refused.

Langston and Balducci, who worked at The Langston Law Firm at the time of the settlement but left thereafter, have recently pleaded guilty to separate judicial bribery schemes. Both involve prominent trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs.

Scruggs and two other members of his firm, including his son, have pleaded not guilty to federal charges that they offered a $40,000 bribe to Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry lackey in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Hurricane Katrina settlements. Balducci and his business partner, former state Auditor Steven Patterson, have pleaded guilty.

Langston, meanwhile, has pleaded guilty to charges that he attempted to bribe Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby Delaughter with consideration for a job as a federal judge when he represented Scruggs in a dispute over attorneys fees earned in asbestos settlements. Balducci also represented Scruggs in the case.

Meanwhile, the two are still engaged in the attorneys fees dispute with Bryant, who recently left his post as state Auditor to become Lt. Gov. He claims that the $14 million awarded should have passed through the state's Legislature for disbursement.

Bryant has also filed his complaint in a state court, leading to his motion for abstention in the federal court.

He said The Langston Law Firm wants to keep the suit in federal court because it "may be forum-shopping to avoid having the Mississippi state courts interpret and enforce the Mississippi statutes that would require the Langston firm to repay its fees to the State of Mississippi for proper approval and appropriation by the legislature."

Langston claims Bryant's complaint was politically motivated, with the intention of helping his run for Lt. Gov., and the motion for abstention is "baseless" and does not pass several tests used by courts to determine proper jurisdiction.

"The Plaintiffs' claims each relate to the interpretation and enforcement of the Settlement Order entered by this Court," Langston's attorneys argue. "The interpretation and enforcement of a Bankruptcy Court's order is a matter of federal law, not state law."

Langston's firm has contributed more than $100,000 to Hood's campaigns. After pleading guilty, Langston was released from his duties as a special assistant attorney general in a case against Eli Lilly, the manufacturer of prescription anti-psychotic Zyprexa.

Hood said his office can not prosecute Langston because of the work he has performed for the State. Hood has made no mention of any prosecution against Balducci or Scruggs

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