Scruggs: Probe relationship between judge and prosecutors

John O'Brien Feb. 1, 2008, 1:55pm



BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - The defense team of twice-indicted trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs wants a hearing to investigate the relationship between a federal judge and the prosecutors who brought charges against Scruggs.

San Francisco attorney John Keker filed the request for an evidentiary hearing Friday, arguing that there was a "defect in instituting the prosecution" against Scruggs in Alabama federal court.

Scruggs is charged with violating a Dec. 2006 order from U.S. District Judge William Acker. That order told Scruggs to return insurance documents obtained through a pair of employees at E.A. Renfroe and related to victims of Hurricane Katrina to the attorneys of the company and State Farm Insurance Cos.

Instead, Scruggs gave them to Hood, who had sued five insurance companies -- including State Farm -- over their handling of Katrina claims. Renfroe was working with State Farm, which has since sued Hood, on the claims.

Acker recommended to U.S. Attorney that Scruggs, who is also facing judicial bribery charges in Mississippi federal court, be prosecuted for contempt, but she declined. So he appointed three special prosecutors to bring the charges.

"It is critical, when private attorneys are appointed to prosecute a criminal contempt, that they be 'as disinterested as a public prosecutor who undertakes such a prosecution,'" Scruggs' motion says.

"As such, the Court must determine whether the appointed private counsel have 'a personal interest, financial or otherwise,' in the conviction of Scruggs... Likewise, should the Court decide that Judge Acker has 'participated in' the private counsel's investigation, 'supervise(d)' their exercise of authority, or 'review(ed)' any of their actions, that would render their appointment unconstitutional."

Those three prosecutors are Charles Sharp, Joel Williams and Michael Vail Rasmussen. When charging Scruggs, they wrote that he and Hood shared "a remarkably close relationship" and that Scruggs has donated $44,000 to Hood's campaigns.

Williams was a judge advocate in the Army before he began practicing as an attorney, and Sharp is a former president of the Alabama Defense Lawyers Association. Rasmussen is a former federal prosecutor.

Scruggs' attorneys anticipate requesting information on:

-Any communication between the prosecutors and Acker regarding the prosecution of Scruggs;

-Payments made by the Government for the prosecutors' services;

-Past and present litigation matters in which private counsel are adverse to Scruggs;

-Any relationships -- personal, professional or social -- between Acker and the prosecutors;

-Cooperation between any civil litigant adverse to Scruggs and Acker or the prosecutors; and

-Any contact between the prosecutors and the Department of Justice, FBI or any other federal or state law enforcement agency.

E.A. Renfroe is suing the former employees, Kerri Rigsby and Cori Rigsby Moran.

"While engaged in work on Katrina as Renfroe employees on behalf of State Farm, Moran and Rigsby learned of acts and practices of State Farm that the two defendants concluded were inappropriate and/or illegal," Acker wrote.

"Instead of sharing their concerns with Renfroe, Moran and Rigsby clandestinely copied approximately 15,000 confidential documents off of State Farm's computer and turned them over to The Scruggs Law Firm."

After leaving Renfroe, Rigsby and Moran each made $150,000 a year as consultants for Scruggs Katrina Group insurance litigation. Acker wrote that the two sisters and Scruggs' firm were "now engaged in a cooperative effort" to sue State Farm.

As a result of the judicial bribery allegations -- he and two members of his firm, including son Zach, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they conspired to bribe a state judge with $40,000 for a favorable ruling in an attorneys fees dispute over at least $26.5 million earned in Katrina cases, while two others have pleaded guilty -- the Scruggs Law Firm dropped all Katrina cases. The remaining members of group renamed themselves the Katrina Litigation Group.

Scruggs has asked that the contempt charges against him be dropped because:

-Scruggs turned the documents over to a law enforcement official, an exception contained in the injunction;

-The court did not have jurisdiction to hold him in contempt as a nonparty to the proceedings involving the Rigsby sisters;

-Acker's involvement has "fatally tainted the allegations"; and

-Allowing the court to appoint private counsel to prosecute the charge is unconstitutional.

A hearing is scheduled for Feb. 8. Scruggs' defense team previously argued that all judges in the Northern District of Alabama should be disqualified from the case, leading to the appointment of C. Roger Vinson of Florida.

Also on Friday, Scruggs was ordered to submit to State Farm's questions by 5 p.m. Monday in the company's case against Hood, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

Scruggs' attorneys said earlier in the week that he will invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself in the event he is deposed. The order came from Judge Mike Mills.

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