The federal courthouse in Oxford
OXFORD, Miss. (Legal Newsline) - Jesus said, "I tell you that every unprofitable saying that men speak, they will render an account concerning it on judgment day. For by your words you will be declared righteous, and by your words you will be condemned."
Zach Scruggs' inopportune observation caught on FBI wire that made a striking "negative impression" on U.S District Judge Neal Biggers, before whom the scion of arguably America's most prominent trial lawyer stood for sentencing Wednesday, was this:
Referring to Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey, who on Friday Scruggs' famous father Dickie had pleaded guilty to bribing, Zach said, "We need to hurry and get this order signed, before some other asshole gets the case."
Zach Scruggs was alluding to the fact that Judge Lackey had recused himself from the Jones v. Scruggs case, and then reversed his decision to step down and again assumed the bench in the case.
Lackey, feeling "like a ball in tall grass" and not knowing "which way to turn" after his longtime friend, Scruggs associate Timothy Balducci made improper overtures to the judge, quit his role as government informer and excused himself from the case.
FBI Agent William Delaney was in Lackey's office after lunch the next day, and persuaded Lackey that they were dealing with a "monster," meaning the elder Scruggs, and that Lackey should continue assisting the investigation that the FBI felt constituted attempted corruption.
Lackey subsequently resumed presiding over the Jones v. Scruggs case, and cooperated even more fully with the government, outright asking Balducci for money, telling Balducci, "I don't want your money. I want Scruggs' money." Balducci sought a ruling favorable to Dickie Scruggs' motion to send the Jones v. Scruggs case to arbitration in the dispute over $26.5 million in attorneys fees garnered for Scruggs Katrina Group lawyers in their representation of Hurricane Katrina victims' insurance claims.
Biggers felt that Zach Scruggs' "asshole" remark "contradicted his assertion that he has the greatest honor and respect for the law" and clearly demonstrated a lack of "honor and respect for the Circuit Court and Judge Lackey."
Even though federal prosecutors had recommended probation, Biggers sentenced Zach Scruggs to 14 months in prison, one year of supervised release and a fine that Biggers said exceeded federal sentencing guidelines of $250,000.
Since both sides were advocating probation for Scruggs' admission only to the crime of misprision of felony, or failure to report a crime, reporters expected a ho-hum hearing after last week's emotional sentencing of Dickie Scruggs to five years and co-conspirator Sidney Backstrom to 28 months for the more serious judicial bribery guilty pleas.
The turn of events pointed to a very disappointed father. Months earlier, following the elder Scruggs' plea agreement with the government in exchange for a promise of no more than five years, local buzz postulated that the reason for Dickie Scruggs' guilty plea was primarily to help his son Zach.
The most prominent member of the Mississippi Bar to allude to such a sacrificial consideration was long-time Scruggs friend, Samuel Davis, dean of the University of Mississippi Law School, who was criticized for his opinion published in the Tupelo Daily Journal "that not everybody who pleads guilty is guilty" and that Scruggs might have had other reasons for the move. "If that were the case," Davis said, "the reasons likely were good ones."
The Wall Street Journal, commenting on "The Zach Factor," wrote in March, "Many speculated that (Dickie) Scruggs would offer himself up to the feds in return for an agreement to let his son, Zach, off the hook." ABC news reported, "Scruggs initially denied doing anything wrong, then pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a deal that will likely keep his son from being imprisoned."
Prior to handing down the sentence, when Biggers asked the junior Scruggs if he wished to say something, "I wish I could go back and change it. I should have stopped what happened. I should have objected. My challenge now is to rebuild my life."
The wife of former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, Patricia Thompson Lott, is Zach Scruggs' mother's sister. She was one of a number of friends and family members who wrote Lackey in support of her nephew, and opined:
"The one example of Zach's character that stands out to me occurred during his year as commander of the fraternity at Ole Miss. The "no drugs" law was being strictly enforced on campus and some of the guys had been caught with marijuana in their room at the fraternity house.
Zach made the decision to ask the brothers to leave the fraternity. It would have been easy to overlook this but he did the right thing and took the correct action."
Apparently Biggers has not been in the overlooking mood for the last week, either. Last Friday, Biggers told Zach's father that sentencing him was "very unpleasant," but nonetheless "necessary."
Wednesday, Judge Biggers told the younger Scruggs and the packed courtroom that although the government had recommended leniency in its plea agreement with Zach Scruggs, that all the attorneys involved knew that such plea agreement was not binding on the Court, stating, "The Court is primarily bound to the sentencing guidelines, the law," regardless of what the parties ask for.
Biggers told the younger Scruggs that though "the primary actor was your father... the evidence shows that you were fully aware, that you took the order," that Balducci supplied and "made comments on it.
"Based on some of those tapes, it's clear that you helped"
It was visibly clear that the attorneys who stood on either side of Zach Scruggs were shocked with the way things were going. Though the Court had early on stated that it would not allow a binding plea agreement resulting in probation, the defense counsel clearly thought that they had a deal.
Zach Scruggs' defense counsel, former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore, asked the court that Scruggs be allowed to wait until after the birth of his third child in October before reporting to prison, and Biggers told Moore he could make such a motion to that effect.
Moore didn't know that the wife of the orange-suited criminal defendant who was sentenced for running guns from Cleveland, Miss. to Chicago only minutes before Scruggs entered the federal court room had also written Biggers, requesting consideration due to the fact that she was pregnant with the couple's third child, to which Judge Biggers had responded:
"It mystifies me why men who have children, a family depending upon them for support, go out and risk being taken. It is really sad, but no excuse for leniency."