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Break in “Scruggs II” Mississippi scandal?

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.

Scruggs scandal developments, February 5

* Pertinacious Scruggs effort to evade deposition by State Farm attorneys results in “testosterone fiesta” of swaggering counsel (Folo; sequel; YallPolitics; Rossmiller); (P.S. Yes, Ted and I independently noticed and posted on this just minutes apart.)

* Remember when Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood declared his political patron Scruggs a “confidential informant”, thus throwing a most useful cloak of protection over him in his battle against contempt charges? It happens that Scruggs was at almost exactly the same moment donating large sums to the Democratic Attorneys General Association which seem to have passed through like a dose of salts to emerge at the other end as donations to Hood (YallPolitics; earlier on DAGA)

* Attorney Ed Peters, tagged with a pivotal role in Langston-DeLaughter branch of scandal, was formerly high-profile local D.A.; his prosecutorial vendetta against an attorney named J. Keith Shelton comes in for scrutiny in a new series by Folo proprietor Lotus [#5 in series; posts tagged Peters; see also YallPolitics]

* Folo co-blogger NMC, looking into Luckey and Wilson fee disputes (earlier here, here, here), is rattled by the prevalence of hearings-without-notice, ex parte judicial contacts, and other Gothic proceduralisms [Folo];

* Implications or non-implications for civil proceedings of Scruggs’s taking the Fifth [White Collar Crime Prof Blog]

* Adam Cohen of the NYT and Scott Horton of Harper’s claim defendants in precursor Minor-Teel-Whitfield scandal were railroaded on vague charges over not-really-illegal stuff; read pp. 6-9 of the indictment and see whether you agree (YallPolitics);

* For Mississippi, it’s already the most far-reaching corruption scandal in a century, aside from the question of how much bigger it might get [Jackson Clarion-Ledger]

Earlier Scruggs coverage on our scandals page.

Scruggs scandal: Joey Langston charged, cooperating with feds

Now we may have a better idea why prominent Booneville, Miss. lawyer Joseph Langston recently withdrew as counsel for Dickie Scruggs in the widening corruption scandal: per a report by Jerry Mitchell in Sunday’s Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Langston was himself nabbed on corruption charges, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal authorities. According to the article, Langston’s guilty plea arose from his involvement in one of Scruggs’s many fee disputes with fellow lawyers, this one being the Luckey-Wilson asbestos fee matter (in which Scruggs’ adversaries were Alwyn Luckey and William Roberts Wilson Jr.) Langston will apparently testify that he worked with both Dickie Scruggs and son Zach in an attempt to improperly influence Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who issued rulings favorable to Scruggs in the case. In one memorable detail, the C-L reports that federal authorities have obtained a May 29, 2006, e-mail in which “Zach Scruggs told his father’s attorney in the case, John Jones of Jackson, that ‘you could file briefs on a napkin right now and get it granted.'” Judge DeLaughter has denied any impropriety. (Jerry Mitchell, “Another lawyer pleads guilty”, Jan. 13). Separately, Patsy Brumfield of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, who was first with an unconfirmed report of Langston’s guilty plea, also reports from unnamed sources that federal prosecutors have flipped another of the five indictees in the original scandal, Steven Patterson (partner of informant Tim Balducci), and that documents to be unsealed Monday will clarify other aspects of the status of the case. (“First public clue Patterson has pleaded in Scruggs case”, Jan. 11; “Scruggs updates”, Jan. 12). Discussion: Lotus/folo, Jan. 12, Jan. 13.

The implications are enormous. Among them:

* It looks as if informant Balducci, who formerly practiced law in the Langston law firm, wasn’t kidding when he said he knew where there were “bodies buried“. Information from Balducci likely helped lead the feds to raid the Langston office and seize records documenting the alleged Wilson-Luckey conspiracy.

* Langston is no incidental Scruggs sidekick or henchman; he’s quite a big deal in his own right, with a national reputation in mass tort litigation. He’s been deeply involved in pharmaceutical liability litigation, in tobacco litigation, in litigation against HMOs, and in litigation against non-profit hospitals over alleged violations of their charitable charters, among other areas. Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood, the law enforcement officer who has comically been playing potted plant as one after another of his closest political allies have been getting indicted in recent weeks, has employed Langston as lead counsel for the state in both the controversial Eli Lilly Zyprexa litigation and the even more controversial MCI back-tax-bill litigation. Langston also served Scruggs as go-between in the much-discussed funneling of $50 million in tobacco funds to ex-football player P.L. Blake (to whom now-reportedly-flipped Patterson was also close). If the reports that Langston is now cooperating with the feds are accurate, he will presumably be expected to tell what he knows about other episodes. (Langston has also endeavored to provide intellectual leadership for the plaintiff’s bar, as in this Federalist Society panel discussion presentation (PDF) in which he strongly criticizes the work on federalism and state attorneys general of Ted’s AEI colleague Michael Greve).

* Part of Scruggs’s modus operandi, as we know from tobacco and Katrina (among other) episodes, is to arrange to bring down prosecutions and other public enforcement actions on the heads of his litigation opponents. A particularly brutal instance of this crops up in today’s Clarion-Ledger piece, which reports that Scruggs in 2001 took documents obtained in discovery from Wilson, his fee-dispute opponent, and brought them to Hinds County (Jackson) district attorney Ed Peters hoping to instigate a state tax prosecution of Wilson:

Later, one of Wilson’s lawyers met with Peters, and [Wilson attorney Vicki] Slater said Peters told that lawyer that a “high-ranking public official” asked him to prosecute Wilson.

Peters could not be reached for comment.

Wilson did nothing to warrant criminal prosecution, Slater said. “All of this was to help Scruggs in his lawsuit.”

This is the same Dickie Scruggs of whom the New York Times was less than a year ago running moistly admiring profiles quoting common-man admirers of the Oxford, Miss.: lawyer: “good people. … If he tells you something, it’s gospel.”

P.S. It would certainly be interesting to know who that “high-ranking public official” who helped Scruggs in the tax-prosecution matter was, if there was one.

P.P.S. Corrected Monday a.m.: “Langston’s guilty plea was to an information; he waived indictment” (Folo). This post originally described Langston as pleading to an indictment.

Scruggs indictment XI

Two noteworthy stories in the Mississippi press: Anita Lee of the Biloxi Sun-Herald takes a look at “Dickie Scruggs’ $50 million man: What did P.L. Blake do to earn all that money?” (Dec. 16; some earlier Blake discussion).

Blake will earn $50 million, court records show, for clipping newspaper articles and alerting Scruggs to maneuvering in political “cloakrooms,” as Scruggs put it, from Mississippi to Washington. …

Accounts of how Blake earned the money are vague and contradictory.

Even more surprising, Blake and Scruggs were unable to say whether they sealed their business agreement with a handshake or in writing.

A few points brought out in the article: “Scruggs said Tom Anderson, who then worked in Lott’s office, referred Blake to Scruggs.” Attorney General Mike Moore, nominally Scruggs’s public client after hiring him to advance the state’s interests in the tobacco litigation, was aware that Blake was being paid, though he professes surprise at how much. And Scruggs routed the $10 million in initial tobacco payments to Blake through attorney Joey Langston as intermediary. (more discussion)

The assignment of steady continuing payments to Blake over the life of the tobacco settlement distinctly resembles a gesture toward diverting a share of the tobacco proceeds (a contingency share, as it were) to reward and incentivize Blake, or perhaps Blake-and-others-too, to work for the success of the deal. [corrected 12:24 on proofreading after posting; I mistakenly used a wrong surname in place of “Blake” here and below.]

If reporters or others at some point succeed in reaching and questioning Blake, who is said to have moved to Alabama, presumably one of the questions worth asking him will be: is he really the final recipient and ultimate beneficiary of all that impressive cash flow — declaring it on his income tax, having all the funds available for his personal use, and so forth — or does he pass/has he passed some of the money along to anyone else? If he keeps it all, it’s no wonder the questions will keep re-echoing about whether his services could really have been worth that much. If it turns out he is passing/has passed some of it along to another actor or actors, why would things have been arranged that way? One possibility — though not the only one, of course — is that such further beneficiary or beneficiaries might not wish to be known publicly as holding a share in the payouts of the great tobacco project. (Update: a Monday article by Anita Lee in the Sun-Herald (“Blake’s information ‘right-on'”, Dec. 17) quotes Moore saying that Blake seemed to have accurate intelligence in what was going on in tobacco-industry and Republican circles.)

The other noteworthy story is by Jerry Mitchell in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger (“Feds probe Hinds case under scrutiny”, Dec. 16). It confirms that one of the “bodies buried” that Balducci told federal agents about relates to the Luckey/Wilson asbestos fee matter, which was eventually split into two legal proceedings, both hard-fought, with Luckey faring better than Wilson in the legal battle against Scruggs. In addition, the search warrant for the Langston law firm sought documents relating to the Wilson case “as well as documents regarding payments to Jackson lawyer Ed Peters, who played no known role in the case. In 2001, Peters retired as Hinds County district attorney.”

An active comment thread at Lotus/folo includes additional information about Peters, among other topics, and also passes along details about some of non-wannabe Timothy Balducci’s past involvements in high-stakes litigation, from his own promotional material. A sampling:

In 2006, Tim was Lead Counsel in Mississippi’s successful prosecution of securities fraud claims against Citigroup in Federal District Court in New York. His success in representing the state in so many complex litigations was a major factor which contributed to his selection by the Commonwealth of Kentucky to prosecute an action on its behalf to recover over $1 Billion dollars in government funds from a major chemical manufacturer. Also, the United States District Court in Charleston, South Carolina, selected Tim to serve on the National Leadership Committee for the ReNu contact lens solution litigation against Bausch & Lomb.

Notes a commenter: “it’s amazing how much lawyering these tiny law firms seem to get done. It’s just as amazing that he gets it done with *no reported decisions.* Pretty strange.”

Alan Lange at Y’All Politics is back with a synopsis of Scruggs’s current troubles, and as always don’t miss the David Rossmiller updates (Dec. 15 and Dec. 16).

Mississippi: “Feds expand bribery investigation”

* “The FBI is expanding its probe into Mississippi’s judicial bribery scandal to examine other cases involving Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter and his former boss, longtime District Attorney Ed Peters.” The pair surfaced in the Scruggs annals not long ago when Joey Langston pleaded guilty to involvement in a 2006 scheme to get DeLaughter to rule in Scruggs’s favor in a fee lawsuit, which allegedly included the funneling of $1 million of Scruggs’s money to Peters, who was viewed as close to the judge. (Jerry Mitchell, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Jan. 28). Rumors have been rife that Peters, DeLaughter or both may be cooperating with authorities, which might strengthen prosecutors’ hand in securing further evidence of the scheme.

* Perhaps relatedly, to quote Folo’s contributor NMC, “In the case against Dickie Scruggs over allegations of bribing Judge Lackey, the prosecution has filed a Notice of Intent to Introduce ‘similar acts evidence pursuant to Rule 404(b), Fed. R. Evid., at the trial’”. See Patsy R. Brumfield, “Prosecutors ready to say bribery attempts aren’t anything new”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Jan. 28.

* With what might seem like startlingly bad timing, Scruggs chum/novelist (and campaign donation co-bundler, if that’s the right term) John Grisham is just out with a new fiction entitled The Appeal, whose thesis, to judge by Janet Maslin’s oddly favorable review in the Times, is that the real problem with the Mississippi judicial system is that salt-of-the-earth plaintiff’s lawyers are hopelessly outgunned in the task of trying to get friendly figures elected to judgeships to sustain the large jury verdicts they win. One wonders whether any of Maslin’s editors warned her about recent news events — she doesn’t seem aware of them — that suggest that the direst immediate problems of the Mississippi judiciary might not relate to populist plaintiff’s lawyers’ being unfairly shut out of influence. Of course it’s possible she’s not accurately conveying the moral of Grisham’s book, and if so I’m not likely to be the first to find out about it, since I’ve never succeeded in reading more than a few pages of that popular author’s work. By the way, if you’re wondering which character in the novel Grisham presents as the “hothead with a massive ego who hated to lose,” yep, it’s the out-of-state defendant.