David Rossmiller, whose blog provided some of the most penetrating analysis of the Dickie Scruggs judicial corruption scandal of 2007-08, has now penned a review of one of the books to emerge from the scandal, “Kings of Tort” by Alan Lange and Tom Dawson. Rossmiller, an Oregon lawyer, also has some kind words for my book The Rule of Lawyers, published a few years earlier, which lays out the background for the scandal by showing how once-obscure plaintiff’s lawyers in states like Mississippi, working with courts known for “home cooking” and in alliance with local political figures, had begun redistributing billions of dollars in big-ticket litigation from tobacco and asbestos on down. [Mississippi College Law Review PDF via Insurance Coverage Blog; related here and here]
During the long series of scandals that brought down former tort potentate Richard (“Dickie”) Scruggs, of tobacco-asbestos-Katrina-mass tort fame, no blogger achieved the status of “must” reading more consistently than David Rossmiller of Insurance Coverage Blog. Now Alan Lange of Mississippi site YallPolitics (and co-author of Kings of Tort, a book on the scandal) has posted a massive document dump of emails between the Scruggs camp and its public relations agency, as made public in later litigation (see also). It shows the principals:
* boasting of their success in manipulating major media outlets to inflict bad publicity on the targets of Scruggs’s suits;
* plotting ways of striking back against critics — in particular, Rossmiller — with tactics including going after him with legal process, as well as creating fake commenters and whole blogs to sow doubt about his reporting;
* wondering who they might pay to secure “Whistleblower of the Year” awards, or something similar, for their clients;
* apparently oblivious, just days before the fact, as to how the ceiling was going to cave in on them because of Judge Henry Lackey’s willingness to go to law enforcement to report a bribe attempt from the Scruggs camp.
The whole set of documents, along with Rossmiller’s summary and reaction, really must be seen to be believed. It will easily provide hours of eye-opening reading, both for those who followed the Scruggs affair in particular, and for everyone interested in how ambitious lawyers manipulate press coverage to their advantage — and how they can seek to use the law against their blogger critics. (& welcome readers from Forbes.com and Victoria Pynchon’s “On the Docket” column there).
Ed Peters, the former Hinds County (Jackson) prosecutor who’s been a central figure in the still up-in-the-air Peters-DeLaughter branch of the Scruggs scandals, has turned in his law license (via) amid much Mississippi speculation that he is cooperating with prosecutors and that other developments are imminent. NMC at Folo tries to sort things out. And, just in time to be helpful, Alan Lange of YallPolitics has an article summarizing the scandal as it’s developed thus far.
ILR comments. The judge-bribing attorney had requested a 30-month sentence (in conjunction with the now-standard set of hundreds of letters listing his supposed good deeds); his plea agreement provided for a five-year maximum sentence, which he got. He’ll still have the jet and millions of dollars when he gets out, even after paying the $250,000 fine imposed at the sentencing. David Rossmiller and Folo will undoubtably continue their excellent coverage, or check our previous Dickie Scruggs coverage.
“At its worst, the system is close to legalized extortion. … It would be nice if the class-action lawyers reformed themselves, but if not, someone should file a lawsuit.” But op-ed columnist David Ignatius regards Melvyn Weiss and Dickie Scruggs as “good guys” gone wrong and says what occasioned their downfall “was a system in which the money just got too big”. This suggests their practices were more honest and aboveboard at an earlier stage in their careers when the stakes were smaller, but Ignatius does not offer evidence for this view, and I wonder whether he has any (“Reining In the Kings of Tort”, Washington Post, Jun. 5).
Relatedly, the New Yorker published a big article last month on the Scruggs scandal by correspondent Peter Boyer. (“The Bribe”, May 19, abstract; PDF at WSJ law blog). David Rossmiller, unsurpassed chronicler of that scandal, does an excellent job explaining why the article is, not wrong, exactly, but disappointing (May 27).
Not so fast, he says — the Mississippi Bar didn’t file a “certified copy” of his guilty plea. (Patsy R. Brumfield, “Dickie Scruggs files to dismiss attempt to have him disbarred”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Apr. 1).
David Rossmiller has ten unanswered questions about loose ends in the Scruggs scandal (Mar. 24) which elicit responses in turn (and more unanswered questions) from NMC and Lotus at Folo (plus an NMC update). These latter bloggers, by the way, have shed their anonymity and stand revealed as Oxford, Miss. lawyer Tom Freeland (NMC) and retired lawyer Jan Goodrich, now of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. (Lotus), now also joined by Jane Tucker.
Is it okay for the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) to take Scruggs’s money? “It depends on what the felony is…” Chancellor Robert Khayat is quoted as saying (Folo/NMC, Apr. 1; more). Gulfport M.D. Bill Hemeter, in a letter to the editor printed in the Biloxi Sun-Herald (Mar. 19), is claiming prescience: “I sent Chancellor Khayat the book ‘The Rule of Lawyers’ by Walter Olson several years ago, with a warning not to take money from plaintiff attorneys.” Earlier, when Scruggs pled guilty, another university official was heard from:
“My initial reaction is one of sadness,” said Samuel Davis, dean of the University of Mississippi Law School, Scruggs’ alma mater. “I’ve known and been friends with Dick and Diane Scruggs almost 50 years now going back to our days in Pascagoula, and I feel a great sense of compassion for him and his family. And that’s just a very personal reaction. I haven’t really thought about the implications for the legal community or the legal profession.”
Davis, who also directs the Ole Miss Law Center, said 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.
And from Sid Salter of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger (Mar. 19): “In spite of their insistence that there were no ethical lapses in their behavior on the tobacco suit, [former attorney general Michael] Moore and Scruggs still owe the taxpayers of Mississippi an accounting of the lawyers’ fees and expenses that accrued from that litigation.”
The WSJ and Mississippi’s WLOX have the news up on Dickie Scruggs’ plea of guilty to conspiracy in the attempted bribe of Judge Henry Lackey. Earlier today, the Journal had an illuminating page-one feature on Dickie Scruggs’s history of fee disputes with other lawyers. YallPolitics‘ server
seems to be down at the moment from traffic, but is back up now; in an email alert, YP’s Alan Lange said the surprise plea came three days before the deadline for Scruggs to plead before his approaching trial. Our past coverage is here, or check our Scandals page.
Update 12:18 EST: AP coverage is here (via Rossmiller). Sid Backstrom also pleaded and, per Folo rapid updates, is cooperating with prosecutors. No deal for Zach Scruggs yet. Also per Folo, Scruggs pleaded to conspiracy in the Lackey bribe attempt but did not resolve possible charges in the DeLaughter case, per the government side.
1:16: Per Patsy Brumfield at the NEMDJ:
…The government recommended a sentence of five years in prison for Scruggs and 2 1/2 years for Backstrom. They also will pay a maximum fine of $250,000 each and a court fee. …
Before Biggers accepted their pleas, Scruggs and Backstrom admitted in open court that they had done what the government said they had done in Count One – they had conspired to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City for a favorable order in a Katrina-related legal fees case….
Dickie Scruggs, arguably the most famous plaintiffs’ attorney in the U.S., looked pale and thin but carried himself with a bit more control than his younger colleague at The Scruggs Law Firm, headquartered on the storied Square in Oxford.
The 61-year-old Ole Miss Law School grad and legal giant-killer, as well as Backstrom, likely will voluntarily surrender their law licenses, as has co-defendant Timothy Balducci of New Albany, who pleaded guilty in December although he was wired and cooperating with the government at least a month earlier.
“Do you fully understand what is happening here today,” Biggers asked him.
“Yes, I do,” Scruggs responded.
Questioned about whether he had discussed his decision to plead guilty with his attorney, Scruggs responded, “With my attorney, my wife and my family.”
…* Richard Scruggs is pleading to conspiracy to bribe a state court judge, count 1 of the indictment, with other counts to be dismissed. This was an open plea, that is, no recommended sentence.
* The government expects that he will get the full five year sentence on that count. …
* There was no mention of cooperation by Scruggs. …
* There was an interesting and unusual disagreement with the government’s statement of facts in the plea colloquy. The government stated in its facts for both Backstrom and Scruggs that a conspiracy began in March to corruptly influence the state court judge, and Scruggs spoke to say that he had agreed to earwig the judge but not corruptly influence him in March, and that he later agreed to join a conspiracy to corruptly influence the judge. Sid Backstrom took a similar stance….
[See also WSJ law blog and later NMC post, as well as WikiScruggs on “earwigging” as a Mississippi tradition.]
3:18: The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports: “As part of the plea deal, federal prosecutors agreed to defer prosecution of Scruggs’ son, Zach Scruggs, who agreed to give up his license to practice law.” [N.B.: NMC @ Folo has a very different take, and other sites are also questioning the C-L’s reporting on this point.] Folo at its temporary bivouac has PDFs of the Scruggs and Backstrom pleas and underlying facts, as does David Rossmiller. ABA Journal coverage includes the text of a forthcoming article by Terry Carter on the affair, written pre-plea. Other reactions: Above the Law (“has Scruggs employed bribery as a tactic in other matters — e.g., the tobacco cases that made him famous …?”), Beck and Herrmann (“What a week. First Spitzer, and now Scruggs. What goes around, comes around.”), TalkLeft, Michelle Malkin, NAM Shop Floor (“So what are the odds that this was Dickie Scruggs’ first and only crime during his decades-long career as a trial lawyer?”).
6:27: Roger Parloff wonders whether Scruggs will cooperate, and whether the statute of limitations might have run already on tobacco skullduggery. NMC @ Folo wonders what prosecutors will make of a slew of fresh documents from the Scruggs Law Firm, or whether perhaps such documents have already had an effect. Not so surprising a plea, says Jane Genova at Law and More, but rather “widely expected“.
Judge Biggers grants the prosecution’s unusual request, citing not only media coverage and its potential to subject jurors to “intimidation or harassment”, but also the “past attempts by the defendants to interfere with the judicial process”. (Patsy Brumfield, “Scruggs-Backstrom Case: Jurors will be nameless, for both sides”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Mar. 6; Folo and more; Rossmiller; order in PDF format).