Government's transcripts may be fatal for Scruggs

John O'Brien Feb. 19, 2008, 3:00pm




OXFORD, Miss. - The fruits of the federal government's disputed wiretaps apparently include indicted trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs discussing an amount of money to be paid to a state judge.

In responding to Scruggs' motion to exclude any evidence obtained through wiretaps, federal prosecutors released their transcripts (they can be viewed here and here) from conversations between Timothy Balducci, who has pleaded guilty to the alleged scheme and was cooperating with investigators, and the three remaining co-defendants.

A March 31 trial date looms for Scruggs, 61, accused of bribing a state judge in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Hurricane Katrina settlements. He faces a maximum 75-year prison sentence and $1.5 million in fines.

Both Balducci and business partner Steven Patterson, a former state Auditor, pleaded guilty. Scruggs and two members of his Scruggs Law Firm, son Zach and Sidney Backstrom, maintain their innocence.

Balducci offered $40,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey, then went to Scruggs in November wearing a wire with the claim that Lackey needed $10,000 more.

The key part of the transcript of Balducci's meeting with Scruggs reads:

Balducci (to Dickie) - OK. Alright, the other things relative to that, and I know I keep going back and forth about this DICK, and I'm sorry, um, he's (Lackey) a little bit, you know, he's a little bit nervous with that last filing by GRADY (Tollison), 'cause he thinks, you know, they've made a decent argument and all of that, and he's gonna do this, but he says he thinks he's a little more exposed on the facts and the law than he was before and I did think that you would do a little something else, you know, to, 'bout ten or so more?

A phone call interrupts the conversation momentarily.

Balducci - ... and, and I think I can get us around it, but do want me to cover that not?
Scruggs - Hmmm.
Balducci - Because I've already, you know, I've already taken care of everything and I'm just.
Scruggs - Uh, I'll take care of it. Uh, I need a, I need uh, some suggested uh...
Balducci - Well...
Scruggs - ... voir dire from you.

The two discuss jury instructions, then resume.

Balducci - Um, that's probably worth about ten, don't you think? Doing those jury instructions?
Scruggs - It'd sure help.
Balducci - Yeah, that's what I figured. Ok, um, can I just get with TIM CANTRELL on that?
Scruggs - Uh, yeah. Why don't you just, uh, send me uh . . .
Balducci - A little engagement letter like that on that?
Scruggs - ...yeah

Scruggs' defense team, led by San Francisco attorney John Keker, claimed the government misled the Court when it applied for extensions of its wiretaps and ignored evidence that would exonerate Scruggs, like Balducci previously claiming to Lackey that he would tell Scruggs about the bribery after it happened.

Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers will hear arguments on the defense's motions that were filed last Monday.

Keker also claims evidence obtained through the guilty plea of Booneville attorney Joey Langston should not be introduced.

Langston and Balducci represented Scruggs in another attorneys fees dispute in Hinds County, and Langston admitted to attempting to bribe Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter with consideration for a federal judgeship.

The government had moved to introduce evidence from that case into Scruggs' case. Keker decided that he wanted to exclude "evidence concerning an alleged attempt to corruptly influence a different judge of a different court in a different case by different attorneys in a different year."

Scruggs also faces criminal contempt charges in Alabama.

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.

On Feb. 26, another Scruggs-related hearing will take place in Oxford. This one will determine if the Lafayette County Circuit Court has the authority to sanction Scruggs in the Katrina fees dispute.

Grady Tollison, attorney for John Jones, wants Scruggs' motion to compel arbitration struck from the case.

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