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Freelancer Says Scrushy Paid Her for Favorable Stories During Trial

January 20, 2006|From Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A writer who turned out a stream of sympathetic newspaper stories about former HealthSouth Corp. Chief Executive Richard Scrushy during his fraud trial says Scrushy secretly paid her $11,000 through a public relations firm and typically read her articles before publication.

Documents show that the public relations firm wrote thousands of dollars in checks to Audry Lewis, whose freelance articles appeared in the Birmingham Times, a small but influential black newspaper.

The documents also show that money from the firm went to a pastor who says he was paid to help bring fellow black preachers into the courtroom in a bid to sway the mostly black jury in Scrushy's favor.

Scrushy, acquitted in June of involvement in a $2.7-billion accounting fraud scheme at the chain of health clinics, denied authorizing payments to Lewis or the pastor, Herman Henderson, for any work on his behalf. Scrushy said he did give money to Henderson's church for a building fund and Hurricane Katrina relief.

The lead prosecutor in Scrushy's case said there was nothing criminal in what Lewis and Henderson described, and members of the jury have said the only thing that influenced them was a lack of evidence against the defendant.

But the payments raise questions about the legitimacy of the ostensibly grass-roots support for Scrushy seen throughout his trial.

During the trial, prosecutors worried that Scrushy was attempting to sway community opinion -- and possibly the jury -- with a Bible study program he hosts on local TV, as well as a daily show about the trial that aired on a local access channel purchased by Scrushy's son-in-law.

Lewis and Henderson said Scrushy still owed them a combined $150,000 for the newspaper stories and other public relations work.

An attorney for Scrushy, Donald V. Watkins, said the allegations and the request for more money "could be perceived as a shakedown."

The public relations firm, Lewis Group, is headed by Jesse J. Lewis Sr. He is the founder of the Birmingham Times, and his son is listed as the paper's editor. Lewis denied being part of any scheme to plant favorable coverage of Scrushy in the paper.

The editor of the Birmingham Times, James Lewis, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Scrushy said he didn't pay Audry Lewis to write anything, and he "hit the ceiling" when he learned that the public relations firm had paid Henderson.

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