Blogosphere becomes authority, issue in Scruggs case

John O'Brien Feb. 14, 2008, 5:32pm


JACKSON, Miss. - In many ways, the saga of indicted trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs was made for the Internet, not the time-consuming production of a novel or movie.

"This is history in the making, and not even John Grisham could make this stuff up," said Alan Lange, editor of the Mississippi political site Y'all Politics.

And it's history unfolding at a quick pace, giving bloggers like Lange an edge over newspapers, television stations and talk radio shows. The Scruggs world demands instant updates and unlimited copy as the famed attorney battles allegations he attempted to bribe a state judge.

Y'all Politics was even mentioned in Scruggs' motion for a change of venue.

"The Scruggs case has definitely put our site at another level," Lange said. "We have easily tripled our site traffic in terms of page views since late November when this began.

"The reason for the success of the political blogs in covering this story is that the story is extremely complex. It can't adequately be covered in a few inches of news text or a two-minute TV package.

"The second reason is that it moves so very fast. By the time respected news writers or TV crews lock onto a story and produce it, it's already old news. By design, we have a platform that is custom made for a story that moves this fast."

Blog sites like Lange's, David Rossmiller's Insurance Coverage Law Blog and Folo have been a source for breaking news on:

-Scruggs' bribery trial (he and two others from his firm have pleaded not guilty to offering $40,000 to Lafayette Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey for a favorable ruling in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in Hurricane Katrina attorneys fees, while two of the original co-defendants, attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson, have pleaded guilty);

-State Farm Insurance Cos. fight with Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood;

-Booneville attorney Joey Langston's guilty plea in another alleged judicial bribery scheme involving Scruggs; and

-Scruggs' criminal contempt trial in Alabama.

Each site has something different to offer, Lange said.

"Y'all Politics has very much taken on the role of aggregator," he said. "We try to link to as much first-source data and comment as possible. There are sites such as Folo or the Insurance Coverage Blog and Legal Newsline that have more in-depth analysis on specific pieces of the puzzle.

"What we try to do is function as a clearinghouse where someone can come and get all the news, comment on it and put it in some kind of context. We have done that very effectively."

Rossmiller, an attorney at Dunn Carney in Portland, Ore., started his blog for the purpose of opining on court issues involving insurance companies. When Katrina litigation heated up, his focus shifted primarily toward it.

When Scruggs, who partnered with other firms to create the Scruggs Law Firm, was indicted, it was only natural that he follow it -- "Scruggs Nation," he titled his posts.

"The interest is sky-high," said Rossmiller, who noted that his blog's traffic multiplied seven-to-eight times after the indictment.

Rossmiller, a former newspaper reporter in Phoenix, even found himself in the middle of things for a few days.

He had remarked on allegations made by State Farm that Courtney Schloemer, the head of Hood's Insurance Fraud Unit, had consulted with the SKG in an effort to team up on the company.

Schloemer took the time to write Legal Newsline, asking that her message be sent to Rossmiller. Her e-mail can be found here.

The blog world may yet have an impact on the outcome of the case. Scruggs' defense team said the coverage has potentially influenced the jury pool and wants the case moved to a federal court outside of Mississippi.

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.

"The print media blitz has been supplemented by Mississippi-based web logs (blogs) that report, in excruciating detail, every event in the prosecution and defense of the Scruggs criminal case, the criminal contempt case against Scruggs in Alabama, the recently dismissed State Farm case against Attorney General Hood and the various cases in which State Farm has sought Scruggs's testimony," wrote Scruggs' attorney, John Keker of San Francisco.

"The stories at times border on the ridiculous. Articles and blog postings have detailed the Scruggs family's annual Christmas party; the flight of Scruggs's private plane to Dallas for a maintenance visit; and the efforts of Joey Langston to sell his ski house at Telluride."

To Lange, it's all proof that his site is having its intended effect -- dispersing as much information as possible.

"It's very obvious to me that lawyers on both sides of the Scruggs criminal case are watching," Lange said. "Obviously, the blog coverage has been mentioned in various court pleadings. However, we are also seeing little signs such as some court filings being scanned instead of electronically converted so that those PDF files are not text-searchable.

"They are now keenly aware of what happens to their work product once it gets in the public domain."

And the public demands even the most intimate details of the case.

"There's an old saying that Mississippi is a club, not a state," Lange said. "Mississippi is so small that just about everyone in the state has had some personal interaction with at least one of the players in this tragedy, so it's compelling on an individual level.

"It also involves a fall from grace of people who were well-known and larger than life. Dickie Scruggs, Jim Hood, Joey Langston, (former Attorney General) Mike Moore and Steve Patterson are all househould names in Mississippi and all are intimately involved in this story."

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