Others have mentioned or anticipated State Farm’s withdrawal from the Mississippi homeowners’ and commercial insurance markets in the wake of the Jim Hood/Dickie Scruggs campaign against them (Krauss; Olson; Wallace; Adams; Rossmiller). But how many tie in Hurricane Katrina, Dickie Scruggs, Jim Hood, Trent Lott, and William Wordsworth? I provide a historical perspective in today’s American.
“It was never about the money for me, this litigation,” said Dickie Scruggs, who stands to collect between $26 million and $46 million from a settlement accomplished by the use of the state attorney general, Jim Hood, to extort State Farm with the threat of criminal proceedings for daring to enforce their flood exclusion clauses in their contracts. [Lattman] Many many posts on the subject at Point of Law.
My new column at the Times (U.K.) Online is on last week’s Mississippi Katrina insurance verdict. (Walter Olson, “Insurers can breathe easier over Katrina lawsuits”, Aug. 30). Concluding paragraph:
Major coverage issues remain to be resolved (and appealed), but at least we can take note at this point that America is not Zimbabwe or Bolivia. As Dickie Scruggs said before the Leonard ruling, “If you win it, it’s a huge win. If you lose it, you spin it the best way you can.”
Also, I was a guest last evening (6:30 p.m. Eastern) on Marc Bernier’s high-rated radio show, “The Talk of Florida” to discuss the article.
In the latest chapter of the long-running Mississippi judicial scandal (Dec. 10, etc.), a jury has cleared Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. of federal tax evasion charges. (Jimmie E. Gates, “Jury clears Diaz”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Apr. 28; Julie Goodman, “Diaz acquittal fuels election questions”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Apr. 29). Earlier, a jury had acquitted Diaz of corruption charges while failing to resolve charges against several other figures in the long-running case, who face retrial in August.
“Assistant U.S. Attorney Don Burkhalter said loans backed by prominent attorneys Richard Scruggs and Paul Minor were not repaid by the Diazes, ‘who used substantial amounts of the money for personal use. They didn’t put it on their tax return.'” (Shelia Byrd, “Diaz attorney says client didn’t deliberately withhold tax information”, AP/Biloxi Sun-Herald, Apr. 25). “Defense attorneys described Diaz as a disorganized fellow who left details such as taxes and finances to his wife and who would not knowingly hide income from the government.” (“Jury acquits Diaz in tax case”, AP/Biloxi Sun-Herald, Apr. 27; Jimmie E. Gates, “Prosecutor: Diaz didn’t report all funds to IRS”, Jackson Clarion Ledger, Apr. 26).
Readers were not shy about recommending hosting services (thanks for all your emails!) and I’ve now decided to go with Hosting Matters, which has many articulate fans and seems to make a specialty of Movable Type-based blogs. It’ll probably be a few days more before the site is back up and running.
In the mean time, you can follow both my and Ted’s postings at the Manhattan Institute site Point of Law, which has been extra-busy lately (see, for example, its reprint of Ramesh Ponnuru’s fascinating National Review article on trial lawyers and social conservatives). I’ve been juggling a number of other deadlines and published a “Rule of Law” op-ed column on Hurricane Katrina and flood insurance last Saturday in the Wall Street Journal (sub) (more on that). (Bumped 9/30).
Glad to see the bar’s priorities are in order. “At least one suit was filed in the last week, and plans were being sketched out for many more. The targets include real estate agents, insurance companies and federal agencies. The potential damages being sought range from a few thousand dollars to billions of dollars.” One plaintiff’s law firm is suing a real estate agency under price-gouging statutes because a homeowner raised the price of his Baton Rouge house over the old list price, which can’t be a comforting thought for anyone who owns real estate in a rising market. Others, including the infamous Dickie Scruggs, seek to sue insurers in “thousands of suits,” arguing that flood exclusions in policies do not apply because a house totallly destroyed by a flood was partially damaged by wind, and that the insured should get the full amount. A Houston Chronicle article underplays the risk. (Joseph Menn, LA Times, Sep. 15; Brett Martel, AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sep. 14; Mary Flood (!), “Storm lawsuits a long shot”, Houston Chronicle, Sep. 15).
Standard homeowners’ policies exclude coverage of flood damage unless it is purchased at a substantial additional premium, a fact well known to most property owners in high-risk areas. Mississippi lawyer Dickie Scruggs, a familiar figure to readers of this space, had the foresight to purchase flood insurance for his Pascagoula home, now partly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Now he wants the world’s insurers to pay billions for the properties they didn’t collect a premium for insuring, as well — perhaps scores of billions, if the principle is to extend to Louisiana. “Mr. Scruggs said he plans to urge Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to try to override flood-exclusion clauses in homeowners’ policies in that state in the interest of public policy, a move that could force insurers to pay many billions more toward rebuilding costs.” (Theo Francis, John D. McKinnon and Peter Sanders, “Paying for Flood Damage Looms as Big Challenge”, WSJ, Sept. 8)(sub). An operative with the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association says he hopes that “people on the Coast and their friends statewide ratchet up the political pressure” to make the insurers pay. (Anita Lee, “Claims Dispute”, Biloxi Sun-Herald, Sept. 9). Megan McArdle thinks it’s all a brilliant way to scare insurers away from offering even conventional coverage in the future (Sept. 8). See also Point of Law, Sept. 9. More: Martin Grace Sept. 8, Sept. 8 again, Sept. 13.
Three days after a jury acquitted Mississippi supreme court justice Oliver Diaz Jr. of charges of taking bribes from prominent lawyer Paul Minor, U.S. District Court Judge Henry T. Wingate unsealed a tax evasion indictment against him which had been kept under wraps lest it prejudice jurors. Included are charges “of evading income taxes due for 2000 and 2001, when [Diaz and ex-wife Jennifer] received $155,000 in loans secured by personal injury attorneys Minor and Richard ‘Dickie’ Scruggs.” (Anita Lee, “Justice Diaz indicted on tax evasion charges”, Biloxi Sun-Herald, Aug. 15; “Diazes indicted”, Aug. 16). The Jackson Clarion-Ledger (Jerry Mitchell, “Diaz now faces tax evasion charges”, Aug. 16) notes that Diaz won’t be automatically removed from office even if convicted of the new charge:
Under state law, those convicted of the following crimes can remain in office -— manslaughter, tax violations, corruption, gambling or “dealing in futures with money coming to his hands by virtue of his office.”
On the other hand, it appears that a judicial watchdog tribunal would still have potential authority to remove Diaz if circumstances seem to warrant. (Geoff Pender, “Heads spinning at judicial watchdog agency”, BSH, Aug. 16; “New indictment makes Diaz’s reinstatement uncertain”, JCL, Aug. 16).
Mississippi’s long-running judicial corruption trial is now in the hands of a jury. “The case has shown about $300,000 in loans, cash and third-party payments flowing from a wealthy lawyer to a state Supreme Court justice and local judges and apparent disregard of state campaign-finance and ethics rules.” (Geoff Pender, “A legal eye”, Biloxi Sun-Herald (henceforth BSH), Aug. 4; Julie Goodman, “Power, expertise convene in trial”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger (henceforth JCL), Aug. 1; Holbrook Mohr, “Defense lawyer denies unfair link between judges, attorney”, AP/BSH, Aug. 5; Julie Goodman, “Deliberations begin in Diaz fraud case”, JCL, Aug. 6).
The indictments in the case were handed down after a federal investigation found that prominent plaintiff’s attorney Paul Minor had funneled money and services to several local judges; at the trial, lawyer Bobby Dallas testified that Minor urged him to channel $20-40,000 to state Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., implying a connection between such assistance and Diaz’s help in preserving a multi-million-dollar award for one of Dallas’s clients before the high court. (“Lawyer says he was pressured to give money to Miss. justice”, AP/Picayune Item, Jul. 7). Diaz’s lawyers pointed out at trial that their client did not rule on any of Minor’s own cases before the court, while prosecutors sought to establish that Diaz removed himself from one large such case only after headlines had appeared announcing a federal investigation of his dealings with Minor (Geoff Pender, “Diaz’s actions, inactions probed”, BSH, Jun. 29; Julie Goodman and Jimmie E. Gates, “Diaz defense: No evidence of corruption”, JCL, Jul. 3).
As the trial neared its end, Judge Wingate dismissed solicitation of bribery and extortion charges against Diaz, leaving four remaining counts against him, and one solicitation of bribery charge against Minor, leaving more than a dozen counts against him. Wingate said prosecutors had failed to establish that Diaz knew of conversations in which Minor allegedly applied improper pressure on attorneys to donate to Diaz. (“Judge dismisses bribery count in judicial bribery trial”, Picayune Item, Aug. 3). Former Circuit Judge John Whitfield and former Chancery Judge Wes Teel are also defendants along with Minor and Diaz, both accused of receiving improper payments from Minor.
Neither side called Richard (“Dickie”) Scruggs as a witness, although colorful testimony emerged about his support for the Mississippi judiciary:
Scruggs’ personal secretary, prosecution witness Charlene Bosarge, supplied a bag of cash to Jennifer Diaz [then-wife of Justice Diaz] for the campaign, Jennifer Diaz told FBI agents.
During the April 13-14, 2005, FBI interviews, Jennifer Diaz said Scruggs and Bosarge promised more cash if they could find names to go with it for state campaign disclosure forms. Beginning in 1999, state law limited Supreme Court contributions to $5,000 per person.
Neither side called Jennifer Diaz as a witness, either. (Anita Lee, “Minor defense: Scruggs took lead role in backing Diaz campaign”, BSH, Jul. 29) A major defense theme was that the failure of the prosecution to bring charges against Scruggs proved its political motivation (the prosecutors can’t win, since when charges against Scruggs were in the air they were accused of being politically motivated)(“Government withheld info in Diaz trial, defense says”, AP/JCL, Jul. 28; Anita Lee, “FBI notes steer strategy in judicial trial”, BSH, Aug. 2). According to testimony from Jackson attorney Danny Cupit, Scruggs attempted to convince then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2000 to appoint Judge William Myers to a vacancy on the state high court; Myers had presided over the tobacco-Medicaid suit that made Scruggs a gazillionaire. (“Lawyer says he was pressured to give money to Miss. justice”, AP/Picayune Item, Jul. 7).
Supporters of the various defendants turned out in numbers in the courtroom, among them former state Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae (Anita Lee, “Judge issues jury instructions”, BSH, Aug. 4; Geoff Pender, “Ex-Justice McRae turns up to support Diaz”, BSH, Aug. 5). For our previous coverage of the case, see Oct. 9-10 and Oct. 11-13, 2002; May 7, Jul. 24, Jul. 27, Aug. 19 and Dec. 19, 2003; Feb. 22 and Jul. 12, 2004; and Apr. 30, 2005.
A reader characterizes:
I admit I get a perverse pleasure when I see the sharks feeding on each other. But this is just too good. Lawyer Luckey gets caught altering dates on asbestos claims, gets fired by Scruggs for altering the dates but then has the chutzpah to demand his cut of the contingency fee loot… and the judge gives it to him! I guess no one ever thought any disciplinary actions on anyone’s part was needed or indicated.
And it’s even sillier than that: the bulk of the damages appears to be for tobacco claims the partnership financed after Luckey was kicked out in 1993, triggering twelve years of litigation. Magistrate Judge Jerry Davis of the federal court in Oxford, Mississippi, awarded $13 million plus attorneys’ fees; the parties appear to have cut a deal so that there will be no appeal. (Leesha Faulkner (!), “Scruggs slapped with $13M settlement over partnership”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Jul. 22). More on Richard “Dickie” Scruggs: Jun. 15, Apr. 30. This appears to be the culmination of the fight that resulted in subpoenas to the Mississippi Supreme Court over Scruggs’s alleged influence there; at the time, Scruggs pooh-poohed the allegations, arguing that the dispute was only worth a few thousand dollars, and therefore not something worth risking improper influence over. (Jerry Mitchell, “Attorney testifies in justice probe”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, May 17, 2003; “Lawyer, Former Colleagues Dispute Fees”, AP/Biloxi Herald, Mar. 27, 1998). Alwyn Luckey represents approximately 1500 Mississippi silicosis plaintiffs, so his troubles may not be over. (Updated from Jul. 23 post.)