Scruggs surrenders, admits to conspiracy to bribe judge

Victoria Johnson Hoggatt Mar. 14, 2008, 11:54am


OXFORD, Miss. - One of the most powerful plaintiffs attorneys in the country has admitted to trying to grease the wheels of justice.

Richard "Dickie" Scruggs pleaded guilty Friday to attempting to bribe a state judge in a legal dispute over attorneys fees, as did his associate Sidney Backstrom.

The move came after months of maintaining his innocence and claiming that federal investigators manufactured the crime and just before the Monday deadline for plea deals. It is not known yet if his son and law partner at the Scruggs Law Firm, Zach, has entered a plea.

Scruggs kept his answers short and simple before U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers, while Backstrom was much more emotional and eventually broke down. He offered an apology to the Court, something Scruggs did not do.

Scruggs, 61, agreed to a maximum prison sentence of five years, pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge while the other five were dropped. Biggers said to expect news of sentencing in 30-40 days.

Dickie Scruggs first made a name for himself in asbestos cases, representing shipyard workers. After that, his work led to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion for the 52 participating territories and states. Attorneys earned $1.4 billion in the settlement.

After 2005's Hurricane Katrina, he grouped together a handful of law firms to create the Scruggs Katrina Group. The group represented insurance policyholders who believed their insurance companies were misrepresenting the amount of damage done to their properties by wind (covered by the policy) and water (covered by a federal program).

More than 600 cases were settled early in 2007, earning the SKG $26.5 million in attorneys fees. John Griffin Jones filed suit against Scruggs, claiming his firm was shortchanged when the money was divided.

Scruggs is apparently admitting that he gave the go-ahead for attorney Timothy Balducci to offer $50,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey for a ruling that would have sent the dispute to an arbitration panel. Balducci pleaded guilty in November to the scheme, and his business partner, former state Auditor Steven Patterson, soon followed.

Lackey contacted the FBI soon after Balducci's first mention of a bribe.

The remaining defendants had a difficult time in front of Biggers. The Senior Judge rejected nearly all their arguments, including that wiretaps of conversations had by the three should be suppressed because FBI Agent William Delaney was misleading the judge who authorized the extensions for them.

Biggers set up the hearing Friday to discuss Zach Scruggs' motion to dismiss, which claimed Balducci's testimony before a grand jury was inconsistent with what was caught on the wiretaps. He denied that motion.

Biggers said the Court noted Backstrom's apology.

Attorney Joey Langston also apologized when he pleaded guilty to offering consideration for a federal judgeship to Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in another attorneys fees dispute involving Scruggs. The Government had planned to introduce evidence of similar acts from that situation during Scruggs' scheduled March 31 trial.

More News