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.
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“.
Alan Lange and commenters are jumping in to excerpt some of the more damning excerpts (YallPolitics Feb. 19; more). And in the department of curious wordings, from the Jackson Clarion Ledger: “Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter has told federal authorities he became aware in 2006 that some people were trying to improperly influence him to rule in favor of lawyer Dickie Scruggs in a Hinds County legal-fees dispute. DeLaughter told authorities he didn’t know whether he was influenced [emphasis added] but says he’s followed the law in all his rulings.” (Jerry Mitchell, “Judge: Efforts to sway made”, Feb. 24).
Big news day in the Scruggs scandals: a judge has turned down defense motions to throw out the charges and to suppress the evidence, a hearing on those motions has showcased the testimony of government informant Tim Balducci, and the government in responding to the motions has released extensive and often quite damning transcripts of the wiretap conversations among the principals. Folo as usual provides the most in-depth coverage, with posts on the judge’s rulings here and here, on the hearing and Balducci’s testimony here and in numerous preceding posts, and on the wiretap transcripts here and in numerous preceding posts. David Rossmiller is on the judge’s ruling here, and on the hearing and transcripts here. More: Patsy Brumfield, NEMDJ, was at the courthouse.
Picking through the rich contents of the transcripts and Balducci’s testimony is going to keep Scruggsians busy for a good long time. In the meanwhile, some odds and ends:
* Want to review all the major events of the central alleged bribery case, skillfully narrated in chronological sequence? Of course you do. Folo’s NMC has it in six parts beginning here and ending here (follow links to find those in between).
* Mississippi legislature won’t give AG Jim Hood authority to wiretap
his enemies suspected white-collar criminals. Gee, wonder why that might be? [WLBT via Lange] Plus: description of Hood as a Pez dispenser coughing out multi-million-dollar cases for his chums [Rossmiller]
* More Hood: prosecuting the accused judge-bribers “would be like prosecuting a relative” [Salter, Clarion-Ledger, Rossmiller, Folo]. Give back tainted money? “That’s up to DAGA [Democratic Attorneys General Association]” [Lange]
* Small world, Mississippi: member of arbitration panel that awarded Scruggs huge fees was later hired by the tort potentate for legal work [Lange]
* Blogosphere has been a major source for breaking news on the scandal [LegalNewsLine]
* Liberal columnist Bill Minor recalls when a certain Sen. McCain let Dickie Scruggs and Mike Moore run their tobacco lobbying campaign out of his Hill office [NEMDJ via Folo; more at PBS “Frontline” and NY Times]
The beleaguered tort tycoon is now seeking to have the federal indictment dismissed on grounds of “outrageous government misconduct”. Roger Parloff at Fortune Legal Pad explains how Scruggs’s attorneys are evoking the atmospherics of an entrapment defense without actually going quite so far as to assert that defense, which would mean (among other things) opening the door for prosecutors to introduce evidence of other similar but uncharged bad acts by Scruggs (Feb. 12). See also White Collar Crime Prof and NMC at Folo. And the Scruggs camp’s motions to suppress wiretap evidence has resulted in the release of a slew of transcripts of taped conversations among the principals, often sliced and excerpted in nonobvious ways, highlights of which appear at Folo here (“you need it pretty soon?”), here (Tim Balducci: “you always gotta have a slush fund” and “This ain’t my first rodeo with Scruggs”), here (P.L. Blake told by Patterson of “pretty good problem that I had solved”; see also Yall) and here (appearing to omit Balducci’s famous “bodies buried” line). For those sorting out Balducci’s colorful figures of speech relating to food, by the way, his reference to “bushels of sweet potatoes” that he needs to get “where I can get em . . . uh . . . over to him” is explained at the WSJ law blog here, while his expressed wish to “lay the corn on the ground” for Judge Lackey is here at Folo. More: Alan Lange, YallPolitics.
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.”