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Scruggs' sentencing bumped up a week

By John O'Brien | Jun 4, 2008


OXFORD, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - For a second time, a federal judge has switched the day he will sentence famed plaintiffs attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs.

Instead of July 2, Scruggs will receive his punishment for his role in a judicial bribery scheme involving Hurricane Katrina attorneys fees from U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers on June 27.

Scruggs' lead counsel, John Keker of San Francisco, has a trial starting July 1 in Los Angeles federal court.

"Thus," Scruggs' motion says, "Mr. Keker is not available to attend Mr. Scruggs' sentencing on July 2."

Scruggs also objected to Biggers' original sentencing date, June 18. Fellow Scruggs Law Firm member Sidney Backstrom, who pleaded guilty to the same charge Scruggs did, will also move his date to June 27, while Scruggs' son Zach, who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, will keep his on July 2.

"Counsel for Mr. Scruggs has spoken with counsel for the government, who indicated that, if the Court was inclined to reset the sentencing hearing, the government would not object," the motion says.

"Similarly, counsel for Mr. Scruggs has spoken with the Probation Officer handling Mr. Scruggs's case, and he indicated that he does not oppose resetting the sentencing."

A maximum of three persons will be allowed to speak on the behalf of each defendant at the sentencing hearings.

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.

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 admitted 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 Steven Patterson, a former state Auditor, soon followed.

Lackey contacted the FBI soon after Balducci's first mention of a bribe. Scruggs agreed to a maximum prison sentence of five years, pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge while the other five were dropped.

Son Zach pleaded guilty misprision of a felony, meaning he knew about the scheme but did nothing to prevent it.

Scruggs followers have been waiting months for a development in another situation concerning Scruggs, this one in Jackson.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter presided for years over a dispute between Scruggs and former partner William Roberts Wilson, Jr. The two had teamed up on asbestos cases and disagreed over the amount of fees Wilson was owed after he sold his interest in the enterprise.

A special master recommended DeLaughter rule Wilson was owed $15 million, but DeLaughter instead decided in 2006 that Wilson was already paid in full when Scruggs gave him $1.5 million.

Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who represented Scruggs in the latter part of the case and formerly employed Balducci, pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe DeLaughter with consideration for a federal judgeship. Scruggs' brother-in-law, then-Sen. Trent Lott, was able to make recommendations to President Bush.

Ultimately, after what has been described as a "courtesy call," Lott gave his support to another candidate.

Prosecutors in the Lafayette County case had planned to introduce evidence from the Hinds County case during Scruggs' trial under a federal rule that allowed for evidence of similar acts being presented.

From Legal Newsline: Reach John O'Brien via e-mail at john@legalnewsline.com.

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