OXFORD, Miss. - Federal prosecutors said Thursday that there is no meat in indicted trial lawyer Zach Scruggs' sweet potato defense.
Responding to Scruggs' claims that a government witness perjured himself when describing the judicial bribery scheme Scruggs, his father Dickie and Sidney Backstrom are alleged to have conducted, prosecutors say the Court would have been better off without Scruggs' motion to dismiss that was filed Monday.
"The defendant's motion makes serious allegations devoid of substance," their response says. "The Court should not countenance gratuitously inflammatory motions that would only appear to be designed to influence the potential jury pool."
The three defendants are charged with offering Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 in exchange for a favorable ruling in a dispute over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Hurricane Katrina settlements with State Farm Insurance Cos.
Attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson have already pleaded guilty to the alleged scheme.
Zach Scruggs' motion says Balducci made "several material false statements which completely mischaracterized Zach Scruggs's knowledge of and participation in the alleged unlawful conspiracy" while testifying before a grand jury.
Scruggs says Balducci testified that he informed his alleged co-conspirators that Lackey had demanded $10,000 more than the original bribe at a Nov. 1 meeting, but a transcript of that conversation makes no mention of any money -- just "a cryptic statement from Mr. Balducci that 'I've got to go back for another delivery of uh, another bushel of sweet potatoes down there.'"
Prosecutors say it is clear Balducci was referring to money.
"While Balducci described this additional payment as 'sweet potatoes,' nobody seriously contends they believed Balducci was taking potatoes to Calhoun City," the response says.
"Second, even if the grand jury took Balducci's statements concerning the $10,000 as literally as the defendant would have the Court believe, the prosecutor immediately sought to clarify those statements.
"Despite the defendant's attempt to characterize it as such, there is nothing 'cryptic' about this exchange. The prosecutor plainly asked: 'Is it possible that you might have used the term sweet potatoes again referencing the amount of money involved?' To which Balducci responded, 'I think I did.'"
Prosecutors also say the amount of the bribe is irrelevant, and that the important thing is there was mention of a bribe.
"It is a crime to bribe a judge with $50, and it is a crime to bribe a judge with $50,000," the response says.
A March 31 trial date is set for all three defendants. Zach Scruggs and Backstrom attempted to sever their trials, but U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers did not grant their requests.
Each faces a maximum prison sentence of 75 years and maximum fine of $1.5 million.
Dickie Scruggs gained much of his fortune in asbestos and tobacco litigation. 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.
Recently, criminal contempt charges against him in Alabama were dismissed.