The disgraced litigator got three years in prison and a fine of $250,000 on his judge-bribing plea, a higher penalty than many had expected. The judge delivered a ringing statement as well: “The damage you have done to the rule of law is the real tragedy in this case.” ([email protected], also earlier posts; Jackson Clarion-Ledger; YallPolitics).
The lawyer defending disgraced Mississippi plaintiff’s lawyer Joey Langston asked that the hundreds of letters pleading for leniency in his sentencing be kept off limits to the general public — seems they were too personal in tone. Nonetheless, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has a list of the letter-senders, a group more local in flavor than the cadre of national big-namers who wrote letters on behalf of Master of the Universe and judge-briber Dickie Scruggs. One of the nearly 340 letters was from Langston’s “longtime friend and business partner”, U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, who wrote, “I only wish that every town and county in America had someone like Joey Langston.” (Patsy R. Brumfield, “Hundreds of Langston letters asked for leniency”, NEMDJ, Dec. 11; YallPolitics, Dec. 10). “Langston faces up to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiring to influence a circuit judge to help resolve a legal-fees lawsuit against then-Oxford attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.” (related, same day). Because he has cooperated with prosecutors, Langston is expected to be given a reduced sentence; some of his supporters, including Rep. Childers, asked that he be let off with probation.
As we reported in 2005:
On December 22, 2000, 15-year-old Michael Foradori Jr. walked into a Captain D’s seafood restaurant in Tupelo, Mississippi for dinner; while there, he started flirting with the girlfriend of one of the employees, which resulted in a shouting match. “‘This (employee) was kind of picking on him, he started threatening him, he even hit him with a wadded up paper,’ said Joey Langston, Foradori’s attorney.” (More on Langston at Point of Law, May 13.) A manager restored order by kicking everyone out of the restaurant; outside, a cook who clocked out for the evening got into an altercation with Foradori, and pushed him over a wall, breaking his neck and paralyzing him.
Langston has since pled guilty to bribing a state judge in a different case; he’ll have some money to comfort him when he leaves prison, as he obtained a $20.8 million verdict in the Foradori case on the theory that, if only the restaurant had better trained its cook not to sucker-punch customers half his size, Foradori wouldn’t have been paralyzed, presumably because the threat of being fired from a minimum-wage job would’ve done what criminal sanctions would not. (Captain D’s didn’t fire the cook, Garious Harris. It is unknown whether fear of race discrimination suits had anything to do with that. Captain D’s appears to have also suffered from some questionable tactical choices by their attorneys.) The Fifth Circuit has affirmed the verdict, its hands tied to some extent by ludicrous Mississippi state law and Erie. Folo commenters speculate on the means of Langston’s success.
We hadn’t previously mentioned that the parties also sued the contractor who built the wall.
* “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.
As a number of commentators have noted (e.g. Brett Kittredge @ Majority in Mississippi, Alan Lange @ YallPolitics), Booneville attorney Joey Langston, who just entered a guilty plea on charges of judicial corruption, is someone accustomed to throwing the weight of his pocketbook around in Mississippi politics. In particular, he has been among the biggest donors to incumbent Mississippi attorney general Jim Hood, even as Hood employed Langston and partner Tim Balducci on contract to handle the controversial MCI tax bill negotiations, with their resulting $14 million legal fees payable to Langston et al, and the potentially very lucrative Zyprexa litigation.
Equally interesting in some ways, however, are Langston’s activities on the national political scene. To take just one example: this CampaignMoney.com listing tabulates the top “527” contributions to a group called the Democratic Attorneys General Association, whose political and electoral mission is implied by its name. In the listing, two donors are tied for first place, with contributions of $100,000 apiece. One is the large Cincinnati law firm of Waite Schneider Bayless Chesley, associated with one of the country’s best-known plaintiff’s lawyers, Stanley Chesley. The other $100,000 contribution is from Joey Langston.
In presidential politics, Langston has recently been a repeat donor to the quixotic (and, since Iowa, defunct) campaign of Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), a lawmaker whose high degree of seniority on the Senate Judiciary Committee makes him important to ambitious lawyers whether or not he ever attains the White House. When the Scruggs scandal was still in its early stages, the WSJ law blog (Dec. 10) noted that two key figures in the affair, Tim Balducci and Steve Patterson, were strong backers of the Biden campaign: “Their bet on Biden was that he wouldn’t win the presidency but would become Secretary of State under a Hillary Clinton administration, according to two people familiar with their thinking.” The Journal reprinted (PDF) an invitation to an Aug. 10, 2007 fundraising reception for Biden at the Oxford (Miss.) University Club, sent out above the names of six hosts, three of whom (Scruggs, Balducci and Patterson) were soon indicted. Scruggs, of course, is better known for his support of Mrs. Clinton, a fundraiser for whom he had to cancel after the scandal broke.
Campaign-contributions databases such as OpenSecrets.org and NewsMeat indicate that Langston has been a prolific and generous donor to incumbent and aspiring Senators across the country, mostly Democrats (Murray, Cantwell, Daschle, Nelson, etc.) but also including a number of Republicans who might be perceived as swing votes or reachable, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Susan Collins (Me.), and Arlen Specter (Penn.)
Incidentally, some critics have intimated that Langston’s generous support to DAGA, the Democratic Attorneys General Association, should actually be interpreted as a roundabout gift to Hood, who was the beneficiary of interestingly timed largesse from DAGA. It does not appear, however, that any of the parties involved — Langston, Hood or DAGA — have acknowledged any connection between the timing of the donations (& welcome Michelle Malkin, David Rossmiller, YallPolitics readers).
[Second of a two-part post. The first part is here.]
Yesterday’s guilty plea by Booneville, Miss. attorney Joseph (“Joey”) Langston in the attempted improper influencing of a Mississippi state judge would be major news even if it had nothing to do with the state’s most famous attorney, Richard (“Dickie”) Scruggs. That’s because Langston and his Langston Law Firm have themselves for years been important players on the national mass tort scene. The firm’s own website, along with search engines, can furnish some details:
- Per the firm’s website, it has represented thousands of persons claiming injury from pharmaceuticals, including fen-phen (Pondimin/Redux), Baycol, Rezulin, Lotronex, Propulsid and Vioxx. It was heavily involved in the actions against Bausch & Lomb over ReNu contact lens solution (and its former #2 Timothy Balducci, the first to plead in the widening round of corruption scandals, won appointment to the steering committee of that litigation.)
- The Langston firm has represented thousands of asbestos claimants and says it has “significant” experience in the emerging field of manganese welding-rod litigation, also a specialty of the Scruggs law firm. The website AsbestosCrisis.com includes the Langston law firm in its listing of about thirty law firms deemed notable players on the plaintiff’s side of asbestos litigation (“Tiny firm founded by Joe Ray Langston powerhouse in Mississippi with 50-year roots in state political circles.”)
- Langston appeared to play a sensitive insider role for Scruggs in the largest and most lucrative legal settlement in history, the tobacco-Medicaid deal between state attorneys general and cigarette companies, the ethical squalor of which was a central topic of my 2003 book The Rule of Lawyers; as mentioned previously, when Dickie Scruggs routed mysterious and extremely large tobacco payments to P.L. Blake, he used attorney Langston as intermediary.
- Langston has repeatedly taken a high profile in the same fields of litigation as has Scruggs, including not only suits over asbestos, tobacco and welding rods but also two of Scruggs’s “signature” campaigns, those against HMOs/managed care companies and not-for-profit hospitals.
- Though the firm is better known for its plaintiff’s-side work, the Langston firm’s “national practice” page asserts: “The Langston Law Firm virtually defined the role of ‘Resolution Counsel’ in the modern era of jurisprudence. Prominent domestic and foreign companies facing massive litigation have turned to The Langston Law Firm to create winning strategies to save their companies.”
Many commenters (as at David Rossmiller’s) have noted that Langston appears to have drawn an unusually favorable plea deal from federal investigators, who are granting him remarkably broad immunity as to uncharged offenses, and not even stipulating that he give up all ill-gotten funds. Presumably this signals that they expect Langston’s cooperation to be unusually extensive and valuable. One hopes that this cooperation will include the full and frank disclosure of any earlier corruption and misconduct there may have been in all the past litigation in which Langston has been involved. In particular, tobacco, asbestos, and pharmaceutical litigation have all raised suspicions in the past because of instances in which forum-shopping lawyers took lawsuits of national significance to relatively obscure local courts — quite often in Mississippi — and proceeded to get unusually favorable results which paved the way for the changing hands of very large sums in settlement nationally. Were all these results achieved honestly?
Incidentally, and because it may confuse those researching the matter on the web, it should be noted that there is a second prominent Mississippi plaintiff’s lawyer who bears the same surname but has not been involved in the recent Scruggs scandals, that being Joey’s brother Shane Langston, formerly of Jackson-based Langston, Sweet & Freese. Shane Langston, whose name turned up often in connection with the “hot spots” of pharmaceutical litigation of Southwest Mississippi, has more recently been in the news over client complaints regarding alleged mishandling of expenses related to the Kentucky fen-phen litigation scandals. [Family relationship between the two confirmed 1/16 on the strength of emails from several readers.] (& welcome WSJ Law Blog readers)
[First of a two-part post. The second part is here.]
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.
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.”
A few odds and ends:
Two rumors previously passed along in this space have been denied by relevant parties. The attorney for indictee Sidney Backstrom specifically denies that his client is considering a plea deal with prosecutors, contradicting speculation from Scott Horton that we passed along the other day (more). We also cited Sid Salter of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on reports that federal agents searched attorney Joey Langston’s home as well as law offices, but Salter talked with Langston’s mother who says that isn’t so (more).
Lotus/folo has some speculation on what it might mean, as to the way the investigation developed, that the dates in the indictment switch back and forth between “on or about” and precise dates. Also on the timeline of the investigation and prosecution, Alan Lange at Y’All Politics has further thoughts on the post-election surfacing of the prosecution’s case.
Finally, former AG Mike Moore, a longtime mentionee on this site and deeply connected with Scruggs through the tobacco episode among other involvements, had at first been considered a likely candidate for the Lott Senate seat, but has now changed his mind and prefers to spend time with his family (Y’All Politics).
P.S.: As for the question, “why would a lawyer so rich do such a thing?”, Great Red Spot is reminded of a cynical quote from Monty Burns of The Simpsons: “I would trade it all … for a little more.”
Yesterday’s sensational developments are covered at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Rossmiller, and AP/FoxNews.com. The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal quotes attorney Tony Farese, who among other connections to the principals represents Zach Scruggs, as asserting that the files taken relate to former Langston firm attorney Tim Balducci. However, some other reports, such as Sid Salter’s Clarion-Ledger blog, are indicating that the federal agents also removed files from Langston’s residence. (Update Dec. 12: Langston’s mother says these reports are erroneous, per Salter). Discussions are in progress at Y’AllPolitics and Lotus/folo.
Langston, a prominent figure on the Mississippi litigation scene, has been among lawyers representing Dickie Scruggs following his criminal indictment; the Sun-Herald notes that he also (with Balducci) represented Scruggs in the Alwyn Luckey fee dispute, known to be a topic of interest to federal prosecutors. Readers of this site may also remember Langston from the Foradori v. Captain D’s case two years ago, and more recently from the controversy over the MCI contigency-fee tax-negotiation case.