Coghlan again ordered to sidelines of Scruggs trial

John O'Brien Jan. 31, 2008, 1:28pm


OXFORD, Miss. - Voluntary waivers of any conflict of interest weren't enough for a federal judge who on Wednesday again denied the attempts of indicted trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs to add an attorney to his defense team.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers, for a third time, told Scruggs he will not allow attorney Kenneth Coghlan to represent Scruggs because he previously served as counsel for a co-defendant who pleaded guilty to the judicial bribery scheme federal prosecutors alleged in November.

Most recently, Scruggs told Biggers that he and former state Auditor Steven Patterson signed waivers of any possible conflict and both were "sophisticated clients familiar with the law." Scruggs is required to retain local counsel to team with a group of attorneys led by San Francisco's John Keker.

"Defendant Scruggs has five eminent attorneys of record at present," Biggers wrote. "The court has waived for the defendant the local rule requiring local counsel - a rule not strictly enforced in criminal cases when the court finds a defendant represented by competent counsel from other federal court districts.

"It would, thus, appear disingenuous for Scruggs to claim that without Mr. Coghlan on his team, he will be deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel."

On Friday, Scruggs asked Biggers to reconsider the denial he made public at a hearing nine days earlier. He added that if Coghlan is not allowed to join his defense team, he would use Coghlan's advice on matters that do not implicate attorney-client privilege.

"As to the extra-judicial matters for which the defendant states he intends to employ Mr. Coghlan, the court has no opinion at this time," Biggers wrote as a footnote.

Scruggs, son Zach and fellow Scruggs Law Firm attorney Sidney Backstrom have all pleaded not guilty to federal charges that they conspired to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees from a Hurricane Katrina settlement with State Farm Insurance Cos.

Attorney Timothy Balducci and Patterson have pleaded guilty since the Nov. 28 indictment. Keker promised that Coghlan would not be called upon to cross examine Patterson if Patterson testified against Scruggs.

"For an attorney to represent a defendant after previously representing another defendant in the same case, only to be later called upon to be part of that defense team's cross-examination... certainly does not pass the smell test," Biggers said at the Jan. 16 hearing.

Joey Langston previously served as Scruggs' local counsel. He has pleaded guilty to charges that he attempted to bribe Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter in another attorneys fees dispute featuring Scruggs with consideration for a federal judgeship.

Scruggs made his fortune in litigation against asbestos companies and by representing several states in their case against tobacco companies. His work helped lead to 1998's Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion to the 52 participating states and territories.

Scruggs' trial is scheduled for March 30. He faces up to 75 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

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