Scruggs' arguments rejected, trial looms

John O'Brien Feb. 26, 2008, 5:00pm



OXFORD, Miss. - Putting it mildly, Tuesday wasn't a very good day for indicted trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs.

Federal judge Neal Biggers ruled in favor of federal prosecutors in every motion made by Scruggs' legal team in the prominent attorney's judicial bribery trial. Once one of the state's top legal names, Scruggs now has a little more than a month before he is scheduled to go on trial and a few weeks before the deadline for plea agreements.

Most notably, Biggers rejected defense attorney John Keker's argument that FBI agent William Delaney intentionally misled the Court when he applied for extensions of wiretaps and ignored evidence obtained from those wiretaps that would exonerate Scruggs.

Scruggs is alleged to have offered $40,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey in exchange for a favorable ruling in a dispute with Jackson attorney John Griffin Jones over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees from Hurricane Katrina cases.

Biggers did not agree with any of the examples given by Keker.

"The defendants list several more examples of allegedly misleading statements or omissions, but the court is satisfied that Agent Delaney adequately explained the bases for his various affidavits and sufficiently clarified any discrepancies between his debriefing notes and the affidavits at the Feb. 20 hearing," Biggers wrote.

"Further, the court has examined all the allegedly false or misleading statements and laid them aside and has reexamined the affidavits with awareness of all the omitted statements and finds that even after this exercise, the affidavits for application of the wiretaps and search warrants provide ample evidence to cause a reasonable person to believe that a crime has been committed and that the interception of electronic conversations and the search of the Scruggs Law Firm would result in addition evidence of the offenses described in the applications."

One transcript recently released by the Government shows Scruggs agreeing with alleged co-conspirator Timothy Balducci on the amount of an extra payment to be made to Lackey. Other transcripts show Balducci telling Lackey that Scruggs did not know about the scheme but he would one day tell him.

Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson, his business partner, have already pleaded guilty. Scruggs, son Zach and Sidney Backstrom, all of the Scruggs Law Firm, maintain their innocence.

"Even though Balducci stated that the defendants did not initially discuss offering a monetary amount to Judge Lackey, it is uncontested that they did intend to send Balducci - not an attorney of record in the case - to use his friendship to persuade Judge Lackey, if he could, to rule favorably for Scruggs in the case of Jones v. Scruggs in a meeting unknown to Scruggs' opposing counsel," Biggers wrote.

"In this court's opinion, to send an attorney to a judge to get him to rule in a certain way - when that attorney is not of record in the case and professes to be a friend of the judge and when opposing counsel has no knowledge of the visit - amounts to an effort to corrupt a judge."

Biggers will also allow federal prosecutors to offer evidence of similar acts stemming from another attorneys fees lawsuit in Hinds County.

Joey Langston, who represented Scruggs in the case, pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter with a job as a federal judge. In that case, DeLaughter did not agree with a special master who believed attorney William Roberts Wilson, Jr., was owed $15 million in asbestos fees from Scruggs.

Instead, DeLaughter ruled in 2006 that Scruggs only owed $1.5 million, which Scruggs had already paid. Langston and Balducci represented Scruggs when the suit ended.

Federal prosecutors moved to introduce evidence from this alleged scheme, but Scruggs' attorneys claimed they should not be allowed to because Scruggs has not been charged in it.

The Government says the evidence implicates both Scruggses, but not Backstrom.

"The defendants have cited case law which they urge would prohibit the introduction of this extrinsic evidence in this case; however, the law is clear in this circuit that such similarity, as exists here, between the 404(b) evidence and the offense charged amounts to relevancy sufficient to allow introduction of the evidence as long as the probative value of the evidence is not substantially outweighed by its undue prejudice," Biggers wrote.

Also denied by Biggers were motions to dismiss, dismiss three of the six counts, change the venue and sever the trials of the three defendants.

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.

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