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For a legal legend, a stiff dose of justice

Dickie Scruggs, once a powerful lawyer for the little guy, gets the maximum 5 years in a bribery case.

June 28, 2008|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

OXFORD, MISS. — There were women in pearls, men in seersucker -- enough well-heeled Mississippians to conjure up a charity auction or summer fete.

They were crowded Friday into a small wood-paneled federal courtroom behind a long line of sober, dark-suited attorneys to watch Richard F. "Dickie" Scruggs, a legendary plaintiffs' attorney, receive a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in March to conspiring to bribe a judge.

"I could not be more ashamed to be where I am today, mixed up in a judicial bribery scheme," an ashen Scruggs told District Judge Neal Biggers Jr.

"It's a scar and a stain on my soul that will be there forever."

Minutes later, Scruggs began to sway, and his attorney grasped his arm to steady him. The crowd gasped. A flock of prosecutors rushed to offer him a seat.

Scruggs, who became one of Mississippi's richest and most powerful men after taking on Big Tobacco and insurance companies, sat shaking as the judge handed down the maximum sentence.

The scene capped a remarkable downfall.

"The justice system has made you a rich man and the court has made you a rich man, and yet you have attempted to corrupt it," Biggers said. "You not only attempted to corrupt the court, but you violated your oath as an attorney."

An icon among plaintiffs' attorneys, Scruggs scored his first significant victory on behalf of shipyard workers exposed to asbestos.

He went on to win a landmark $206-billion settlement against tobacco companies. He was a character in the 1999 movie "The Insider," starring Russell Crowe as tobacco industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand and Al Pacino as CBS News producer Lowell Bergman.

An insurance settlement related to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 led to Scruggs' undoing.

After winning $80 million for Gulf Coast residents who said insurance companies had unfairly denied claims over lost homes, Scruggs was involved in a dispute about $26.5 million in legal fees.

Scruggs -- along with his son and law partner, David Zachary Scruggs, and three other attorneys -- was indicted last November for attempting to offer $50,000 to a state judge in exchange for a favorable ruling in the dispute. According to prosecutors, the judge reported the encounter to the FBI and then worked undercover to help investigators secure evidence. Scruggs initially insisted he was innocent.

When he pleaded guilty, the American Bar Assn. announced it would seek "immediate suspension and ultimate disbarment." The University of Mississippi, his alma mater, took his name off its music building.

Yet Scruggs' numerous charitable contributions and his assault on big industry earned him many faithful supporters.

After his sentencing, scores of onlookers dabbed away tears as they waited to console Scruggs and his wife, Diane.

Hundreds of Mississippians, from a former governor to the daughter of a Pascagoula shipbuilder, wrote letters seeking leniency.

"You have before you a rare man who has made comforting the afflicted a calling," wrote Bergman, a former CBS producer for "60 Minutes."

"It is my belief that any time he spends being incarcerated is an absolute waste of a great deal of talent and ability," wrote University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert C. Khayat, who was in the courtroom for Scruggs' sentencing.

But Biggers sentenced Scruggs to the maximum 60 months, ordering him to report to prison by Aug. 4 and to pay a $250,000 fine within 30 days.

Biggers sentenced Scruggs' former law partner Sidney Backstrom to two years and four months and fined him $250,000, saying he was impressed that Backstrom seemed remorseful. The judge said he was troubled that Scruggs seemed to "just fall into" the conspiracy so easily.

"It made me think perhaps it was not the first time. . . . And there is evidence before the court that you have done it before," Biggers said.

He reminded Scruggs that Timothy R. Balducci, the attorney who allegedly delivered the cash to Mississippi Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey, told Lackey: "The only person in the world outside of me and you that has discussed this is me and Dick. . . . There are bodies buried that, that -- you know -- that he and I know where."

With prosecutors looking into another case in which Scruggs is accused of trying to influence a judge, Biggers offered Scruggs some advice.

"You know, Balducci said that you know where a lot of bodies are buried," Biggers said. "If you want to uncover a lot of those bodies, it might help you in the future of the case."

--

jenny.jarvie@latimes.com

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