Scruggs hopes for turnaround tomorrow

Victoria Johnson Hoggatt Feb. 25, 2008, 2:21pm



OXFORD, Miss. - Beleaguered legal power player Richard Scruggs and his two remaining co-defendants charged with judicial bribery were denied their request for a change of venue from Mississippi by a federal judge Thursday.

Defense motions to dismiss for lack of federal jurisdiction over the state judicial bribery case were also denied by Northern District of Mississippi Senior Judge Neal Biggers, who dismissed Scruggs' motion charging outrageous government conduct Wednesday.

Judge Biggers said that other defense motions will be ruled on by Tuesday. The remaining motions, all filed on the last possible day for motions by Scruggs legal power team, include a motion to exclude wiretap evidence on grounds that the government misled authorities into signing the warrants for wiretaps.

San Francisco attorney John Keker alleges omitted material statements that would exonerate Scruggs by former attorney Timothy Balducci were withheld by investigators. The defense also alleged that the government added incriminating statements to government transcripts which in fact did not exist on the wiretap tapes from which they were drawn.

Keker asserts that the Government "created" the crime by asking Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey to ask Balducci in 2007 for a bribe from Scruggs in a $26.5 million legal fee-splitting dispute stemming from Katrina litigation, and that the FBI then wired Judge Lackey's office, tapped his telephone and actively pursued Balducci until the bribe suggested by Judge Lackey was paid.

The defense moved additionally to exclude all evidence of prior "bad acts" by Dickie Scruggs acting in concert with Balducci, Joseph Langston, and former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters.

The Government says they want to call former Sen. Trent Lott (Scruggs' brother-in-law), Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter and Langston as government witnesses of prior bad acts, to show intent in the current bribery trial, to convince a jury that Scruggs and Balducci knew from past experience that the offers to Judge Lackey were intended to corruptly influence a government officer.

Co-conspirator-turned-government-witness Balducci, the lawyer who alleges that he served as the money man in the current Scruggs bribery trial, stated under oath that he also helped Langston and former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters bribe DeLaughter on behalf of Scruggs in 2006.

Langston, who resigned as criminal defense counsel for defendant Dickie Scruggs on Jan. 9, pleaded guilty days earlier to a federal charge of conspiracy to corrupt an elected state official. The plea deal promised not to go after Langston's considerable assets and offered a maximum prison sentence of three years.

Zack Scruggs' attorney asked the court to sever his trial from the other two defendants, father Dickie and Scruggs Law Firm member Sidney Backstrom, saying his part if any, was minimal, and that having two defendants with the Scruggs last name would confuse a jury.

The government countered that Zack Scruggs name would always remain Zack Scruggs, that he would still be a member of Scruggs Law Firm, and that evidence against one conspirator was admissible to all defendants in the criminal conspiracy.

Judge Biggers asked government prosecutors if there were any connection between Zack Scruggs and the earlier DeLaugter bribery alleged by Balducci. In response, U.S. attorneys alluded only to "some evidence of some knowledge" that Zack Scruggs had of the earlier alleged bribery attempt.

Federal prosecutors did not refer directly to the allegations that federal authorities have possession of a copy of a May 29, 2006 e-mail sent by Zack Scruggs to attorney John Jones of Jackson, who represented Dickie Scruggs in the case.

Zack Scruggs allegedly wrote to Jones, "You could file briefs on a napkin right now and get it granted,", to which Jones replied in writing, "You have misconceptions about Joey (Langston) and Tim (Balducci) that I hope ultimately do not need to be explored... If we win, it will be because the law says we win."

Attorneys representing Sidney Backstrom asked that his client's trial be severed only from Dickie Scruggs', citing the prejudicial effect of the "tsunami" of publicity that must attend the indictment of one of America's most celebrated lawyers. Backstrom has not been implicated in the other alleged bribery scheme.

Scruggs' team is meticulously preserving every possible point of error for appeal. Judge Biggers complimented Scruggs' team on the thoroughness of preparation of the defense's motion asking for a change of venue, believed to contain hundreds of footnotes and unfavorable Mississippi news articles. A Legal Newsline article was quoted by Keker as an example of why a fair trial could not be had in Mississippi.

Keker also derisively pointed to Jackson Clarion-Ledger reporter Jerry Mitchell, sitting in the front row of press observers, as he asked that a front page article by Mitchell be entered into evidence as an exhibit.

As added evidence of "ill-will" Keker asserts Mississippians feel towards his client, he pointed to Clarksdale attorney Charlie Merkel, who was cheerfully and attentively in attendance as a spectator for all three days of the motions hearings. Merkel is watching carefully, planning his civil attack against Scruggs for allegedly illegally influencing the outcome of the Wilson case wherein Balducci says that he helped Scruggs bribe DeLaughter.

After denying a change of venue, Biggers took under advisement Keker's request that the defense may submit a questionnaire to prospective members of the jury pool.

U.S. Attorneys told Judge Biggers that the alleged bribery of Judge DeLaughter is now "under active investigation" by the Public Integrity section of the Justice Department.

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