Scruggs: Give me 2 1/2 years in jail

By John O'Brien | Jun 26, 2008

Dickie Scruggs

The Scruggs Law Firm office in downtown Oxford before Scruggs pleaded guilty

OXFORD, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Famed plaintiffs attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs will find out the length of his prison sentence Friday, more than three months after pleading guilty to attempting to bribe a Mississippi judge.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers has been dealing with media requests for letters recommending leniency or harshness and will make his decision known at a hearing that begins at 10 a.m.

Scruggs pleaded guilty to offering $50,000 to Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey in exchange for a favorable order in a dispute with a former business partner over at least $26.5 million in attorneys fees earned in Hurricane Katrina cases against insurance companies.

In a memorandum filed with the court Wednesday, Scruggs and his attorneys ask that he be sentenced to 30 months in prison. He faces a five-year maximum.

"Scruggs asks that the Court take into account his long history of service, his good character, and his family circumstances and sentence him at the low end of the range," the memo says.

A maximum of three persons will be allowed to speak on the behalf of Scruggs and former partner Sidney Backstrom 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. Backstrom faces a maximum sentence of three years, and the rest of the former SKG members were disqualified from representing Katrina victims.

More than 400 letters have been written to Biggers regarding the sentences of the three.

Scruggs attorney John Keker said Biggers should take Scruggs' life works into account. Beginning on page one of the memo, a detailed biography of Scruggs describes them.

The section is titled "The Life of Dick Scruggs," and covers his time in the Navy and at the University of Mississippi, at which he is a major financial donor.

It also says that he began his legal career as a defense attorney.

Unimpressed, federal prosecutors are recommending a full five-year sentence for Scruggs and 2 ½ years for Backstrom.

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 by e-mail at john@legalnewsline.com.

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