Judge Declines Indictment Dismissal of Miss. Attorney in Bribery Case

February 22, 2008

A federal judge on Wednesday in Mississippi declined to dismiss an indictment in a judicial bribery case against powerful attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and two others.

Scruggs, his son Zach and law partner Sidney Backstrom are accused of trying to bribe a judge to get a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina insurance lawsuits.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. ruled that there is enough evidence against the three for the case to go to trial. They have pleaded not guilty to counts including wire fraud and defrauding the federal government.

A trial is set to begin March 31.

Richard Scruggs, who made hundreds of millions of dollars from taking on tobacco, asbestos and insurance companies, could get 75 years in prison if convicted.

Three other defendants have pleaded guilty in the case: attorney Timothy Balducci; Richard Scruggs’ former defense attorney Joey Langston; and former state Auditor Steve Paterson, a former business partner of Balducci’s.

Biggers heard testimony from Balducci, who prosecutors say was the one who approached Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with a “bribe overture” last year. The judge reported the attempt and worked undercover for the FBI.

Balducci allegedly delivered $40,000 to the judge in three installments between September and November. Richard Scruggs, Zach Scruggs and Backstrom say Balducci acted alone.

On the stand Wednesday, Balducci said Zach Scruggs suggested that Balducci have an off-the-record conversation with Lackey and persuade him to rule in their favor. After that discussion, Balducci said he met with Lackey on March 28.

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors filed with the court transcripts from some wiretaps to support their case.

The transcripts appear to contain conversations secretly recorded by Balducci in which Richard Scruggs and others discuss the wording they want in Lackey’s order in the fee dispute case.

Balducci said it wasn’t until September _ after Lackey contacted the U.S. attorney’s office in Mississippi and began taping conversations for the FBI _ that Lackey brought up the idea of a payoff.

“We talked about the case,” Balducci said. “We talked about the fact that he said he was in a position he had gotten himself into. He’d created a hump that he needed to get over and gotten himself into a fix that he needed $40,000 to get out of. I told him I thought Mr. Scruggs would give him the $40,000 to rule in his favor.”

He said Scruggs later agreed to the bribe and guaranteed he would reimburse Balducci.

Balducci also testified that Scruggs had tried to use former Sen. Trent Lott _ Scruggs’ brother-in-law _ to influence rulings in another dispute involving legal fees.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter “was offered the influence of Mr. Scruggs’ brother-in-law, who was Sen. Trent Lott, to put him on a list to be considered” for a federal vacancy, Balducci testified.

Lott’s former chief of staff, Brett Boyles, has said Lott called the judge about a vacancy in the federal court system, but that it was among many courtesy calls he made and that he recommended someone else for the job.

Boyles, contacted again after Balducci’s testimony, said Lott “stands by the earlier statements.”

Lott, who resigned from the Senate in December, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. DeLaughter has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.

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