Former U.S. senator again surfaces in Scruggs probe

Legal News Line Jul. 31, 2008, 3:35pm

Trent Lott (R)

(Legal Newsline)-An attorney for State Farm Insurance Company said he is determined to get to the bottom of former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott's role in a scheme to defraud the insurance company in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

State Farm accused Lott's brother-in-law, convicted attorney Richard Scruggs, of organizing a fraudulent claim that the insurance company tried to cover up its improper handling of homeowners' claims.

State Farm, according to its attorney Jim Robie, wants to know the former Mississippi senator's involvement, including whether he urged witnesses to give false information.

Robie implicated Lott during a deposition last week with convicted attorney Zach Scruggs, Richard's son. Both Richard and Zach are headed to federal prison after pleading guilty to charges related to trying to bribe a judge in a different case.

Zach Scruggs, also represented Lott's claim against State Farm after his Mississippi home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

According to court records, Robie asked Scruggs, "Has it been your custom and habit in prosecuting litigation to have Senator Lott contact and encourage witnesses to give false information?'"

In response, Scruggs invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to comment.

"Clearly, the record couldn't be more plain that Sen. Lott and his associates were talking to people that were key advisers to Mr. Scruggs, paid consultants and those who were creating an illusion that simply doesn't have any basic fact," Robie told Legal Newsline on Thursday.

Robie said he will continue his efforts to depose both Richard and Zach Scruggs, during which he will probe the influence of Lott.

"I expect to follow-up deposition of both Zach and Dick, which will now have to take place in a federal penitentiary," Robie said. "They clearly had a close liaison with Sen. Lott."

Robie said Lott, a leading Republican, initiated contact with people surrounding this case, something unprecedented for a U.S. Senator.

"Have you ever had a U.S. Senator call you?" he asked rhetorically.

Bret Boyles, a spokesman for Lott's lobbying firm The Breaux Lott Leadership Group, told Legal Newsline the former senator had no interest in justifying the implication with a response.

Richard Scruggs rose to prominence as a class-action lawyer involved in asbestos cases and multi-billion dollar tobacco cases. His fall was similarly spectacular.

Both Zach and his father invoked their Fifth Amendment right to virtually every question asked of them during their deposition last week. The pair filed a motion Friday asking the court to seal their testimony to State Farm, claiming it could hurt them in future criminal proceedings, and compromise their Fifth Amendment rights.

"There are no seal orders," Robie said. "We filed our motions to compel and they are public record."

Lott's name surfaced during the Scruggs legal odyssey when one of the convicted attorneys testified that Scruggs instructed him to offer a bribe to influence a county circuit judge, not with cash as in the case he pleaded guilty to, but "the influence of Mr. Scruggs' brother-in-law, who was Sen. Trent Lott, to put him on a list to be considered for a federal vacancy.''

Lott did place a call to the judge, but did not nominate him, according to published reports.

Lott unexpectedly announced his resignation from the Senate just days before Richard Scruggs was indicted last November. At the time, CNN reported that Lott's resignation was due in part to an act that took effect at the end of 2007 forbidding lawmakers from lobbying for two years after leaving office.

Lott said his desire to spend more time with family, not the new law, influenced his decision to resign. Less than two months he opened his lobbying firm.

Robie will continue to seek answers from both Zach and Richard Scruggs, he said.

"I have an incomplete record," he said. "They were ordered to give these dispositions, their Fifth Amendment rights have largely been ruled on. To put up a complete stonewall is very frustrating. But I'm not going to try this case in the press. I just want answers."

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