Dickie Scruggs gets testimony unsealed in attempt to vacate guilty plea

Steve Korris Oct. 11, 2011, 2:22pm


ABERDEEN, Miss. - Tort king Dickie Scruggs, who disgraced Mississippi on his way to prison, aims to get out early by disgracing his brother-in-law, former U. S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Scruggs spared Lott an embarrassing role in a judicial corruption trial by pleading guilty in 2009, but now he assigns Lott that role in a motion to vacate his plea.

If his motion succeeds, he will shorten his sentence from seven-and-a-half years to five.

Scruggs pleaded guilty to charges that he paid lawyer Ed Peters $1 million to influence Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby Delaughter in a lawsuit involving Scruggs.

Though Scruggs admitted that Peters arranged for Lott to call Delaughter about an open seat for a federal judge, he now claims the arrangement didn't constitute a crime.

His lawyer, Edward Robertson of Leawood, Kan., argues that Scruggs was exercising free speech rights.

"Petitioner's conviction implicates the First Amendment because recommending a state court judge for appointment to the federal bench constitutes protected political speech," Robertson wrote in June.

"For the free speech analysis, it is quite irrelevant that it was inappropriate for petitioner to recommend Judge Delaughter while petitioner had a case pending.

"Like judicial elections, judicial nominations are intensely political affairs."

In September, Robertson advanced an argument that Scruggs had to buy influence to offset the influence of Bill Kirksey, who represented former Scruggs associate Robert Wilson.

"Scruggs's motivation was not to defraud Wilson of any money or property; it was simply to neutralize the undue influence that Wilson appeared to be applying on the other side, so that Judge Delaughter would follow the law," Robertson wrote.

Lott resigned from the Senate in 2007, a week before grand jurors indicted Scruggs.

Scruggs made a fortune in the 1980s and 1990s, first in asbestos litigation and later in lucrative suits that states brought against cigarette makers.

His fortunes turned in 2005, when U.S. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis awarded former Scruggs associates about $18 million in damages and $9 million in legal fees and expenses.

He faced similar suits not only before Delaughter in Jackson but also before Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey in Oxford.

In 2007, grand jurors at federal court in Oxford indicted Scruggs on charges that he provided a $40,000 bribe to Lackey.

They also indicted son Zach Scruggs, former state auditor Steve Patterson and lawyers Sidney Backstrom and Tim Balducci.

All five pleaded guilty before District Judge Neal Biggers, with Dickie Scruggs accepting the longest sentence at five years.

Investigators then connected Scruggs to Delaughter through Peters and Lott, and grand jurors in Aberdeen indicted Scruggs and Delaughter.

They couldn't allege bribery, because Scruggs hadn't paid Delaughter, so they alleged that Scruggs fraudulently deprived citizens of Delaughter's honest services.

Scruggs, who had served six months for bribing Lackey, agreed to serve two-and-a-half more years for fraudulently depriving citizens of Delaughter's honest services.

At sentencing before District Judge Gary Davidson, Scruggs apologized to the bench, the bar, the people of Mississippi and everyone he injured in his misconduct.

He said he would do everything to make it right.

"I am going to cooperate fully with the federal authorities," he said.

"I will renew that pledge that I made to Judge Biggers to you, Judge Davidson, and I will make the best of this situation that can possibly be made and try to emerge a better man yet again.

"The Romans had a proverb which said that money was like sea water. The more you drink, the thirstier you become."

Delaughter pleaded guilty next, accepting 18 months.

Delaughter, Balducci, Patterson, Backstrom and Zach Scruggs served their time. Dickie Scruggs remained behind bars, but he waited for a break.

He believed it came when the U.S. Supreme Court exonerated former Enron chief Jeff Skilling of a charge that he deprived stockholders of his honest services.

Rather than appeal his conviction, he asked Davidson to vacate it.

"Bobby Delaughter received nothing of value," Robertson wrote on June 23. "At most, he got petitioner to say nice things about him to Senator Lott.

"Any supposed benefit conferred by petitioner, a private citizen endorsing a circuit judge for consideration for a position on the federal bench, is so remote and theoretical as to prove illusory.

"Petitioner was just a well-connected private citizen, with no power or discretion to appoint Bobby Delaughter.

"Petitioner had no authority to compel Senator Lott to do anything. Senator Lott had no authority to even nominate Judge Delaughter to the federal bench.

"The fact that Senator Lott never even seriously considered Bobby Delaughter for this federal judgeship any more than he considered virtually every other prominent attorney in Mississippi is evidence that any benefit was illusory.

In August, U. S. Attorney Felicia Adams responded that Peters was paid $1 million to corruptly influence Delaughter.

She wrote that Balducci, Patterson, and lawyer Joey Langston testified that Scruggs intended to make Delaughter think he would help him attain his goal.

She wrote that unless witnesses deviate from previous testimony, Scruggs would be unable to prove his innocence.

"Although Dickie Scruggs was always careful to say that he would do what he could as far as getting the Senator to consider Judge Delaughter, it was generally believed that Scruggs could get that done," she wrote.

"Although Senator Lott has testified that his call to Delaughter was simply a courtesy call and that he had no intention of making Bobby Delaughter a federal judge, the Senator's intentions are in this context irrelevant.

"It is clear from Delaughter's response that he thought he was under serious consideration."

Robertson battled back for Scruggs by filing grand jury transcripts and other documents under seal and declaring he would move to unseal them.

Adams expressed no opposition, and Davidson unsealed them on Oct. 3.

In a transcript of Peters before grand jurors in 2008, prosecutor Robert Norman asked if Patterson told him what interest he had in him.

Peters said there was a lawyer by the name of Kirksey on the other side and Scruggs wanted to make sure he didn't create "home cooking."

Norman asked if Kirksey and Delaughter had been partners at one time.

Peters said, "They were in the same law firm together for a long time."

Norman asked if he influenced Delaughter, and Peters said he was sure he did.

Norman asked what Delaughter told him about a judgeship, and Peters said Delaughter told him he wouldn't believe it but he had received a call from Trent Lott.

In another transcript, Langston told grand jurors he felt like Scruggs was mistreated in the case Davis decided.

"This was kind of, I guess, a crime of opportunity," he said.

"Ed Peters could ensure that Bobby Delaughter could do what we thought was the right thing.

"That was something that I shouldn't have done and I'm so ashamed of it."

Scruggs also filed depositions of Patterson and Balducci from 2009, in yet another Hinds County suit.

Patterson testified, "Mr. Scruggs was the guy with the money."

Patterson said Langston told him Lott called Delaughter.

"I shall never forget that call because I thought that was the most insane thing I had ever heard in my entire life," he said.

Lawyer Eric Sitarchuk of Philadelphia asked him if he thought it was risky.

Patterson said, "I thought it was risky and I thought Ed had probably communicated it without the necessity of that being done."

Sitarchuk asked if he referred to Scruggs influencing Lott on Delaughter's desire to be a federal judge.

Patterson said, "In the event that you do want to solicit Trent's support, you know, you can't make bad rulings that negatively impact his brother-in-law."

Balducci testified that Peters would meet Delaughter at Shoney's.

"Peters and Delaughter would eat lunch and then after lunch, Peters would come to the airport and meet with us after lunch and tell us what the response was," he said.

Chase Bryan of Jackson asked him if his primary job was to provide a legal rationale to hide what Delaughter and Peters did.

Balducci said, "That's a good explanation, good summary."

He said Lott called Delaughter, and Bryan asked how he knew that.

Balducci said, "Scruggs told us that Trent called him to let him know that everything is going to be okay, and then Peters told us eventually Lott called him and told him everything is going to be okay."

He said, "We all knew it was wrong, what we were doing.

"My experience with Scruggs always was that Scruggs always wanted the upper hand and he always wanted a guaranteed outcome."

He said, "He wanted to know what the outcome was going to be on the front end and manage his exposure on the front end."

Scruggs also filed a transcript of Lott telling a state commission on judicial performance that Scruggs didn't tell him he had a case in front of Delaughter.

Lott said Scruggs didn't ask for his help in getting Delaughter a federal judgeship.

"He knew me well enough to know that I would react very adversely to that and that if he took that kind of position it would actually have a reverse effect," he wrote.

"For the most part, I was looking for somebody very different from what my brother-in-law would probably have been looking for. I came from a defense background. He came from a plaintiff background."

As of Oct. 10, Davidson had not set a hearing on Scruggs's motion to vacate the plea.

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