For most of his life, Zach Scruggs has benefited from his last name.
As a partner in his father Richard “Dickie” Scruggs’ law firm, the younger Scruggs is entitled to millions in legal fees and the acclaim of working with one of the nation’s most powerful and media savvy plaintiffs lawyers.
Now that he faces trial with his father and an associate on charges of conspiring to bribe a Mississippi judge, however, Zach Scruggs is in the unusual position of having to distance himself from Richard Scruggs.
A federal judge is expected to rule today (Tuesday) on Zach Scruggs’ request to have his case severed from his father’s, among other key decisions on pending motions.
Despite the formal setting, the Scruggses’ feelings showed through in court last week during a two-day motion hearing. They consulted during recesses, leaning in to each other to discuss strategy in quiet tones, and even greeted each other with a special handshake.
Yet in Zach Scruggs’ best interests, his attorney argued his case should be separated from his father’s because the name that has served him so well in the past now may stand in the way of his defense.
“The whole matter is difficult,” Zach Scruggs’ attorney, Todd Graves, said in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press. “It’s a father-son relationship. He’s concerned about his father, but at the same time, though, he’s in this case and our contention is he should be tried separately in his own case.”
The Scruggses, who declined comment for this story, and fellow defendant Sidney Backstrom have pleaded not guilty to defrauding the federal government and wire fraud, among other charges. Backstrom also is asking U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. to separate his case from the others.
They are accused in a federal indictment of paying Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey $40,000 to rule in their favor in a dispute over $26.5 million in Hurricane Katrina insurance settlement fees. Lackey is not accused of wrongdoing and worked with federal investigators.
During last week’s hearing, Graves told Biggers that he had counted the number of times attorneys, the judge and witnesses had distinguished between the senior Scruggs and his son during the proceedings and came up with only a handful.
He noted that all parties often had to clarify who they were talking about in the hearing and that wrongdoing was often attributed to the “Scruggs law firm” rather than to the individuals.
“That element of confusion could lead to prejudice,” Graves argued.
Graves also argued that the cases against father and son should be split because of the “huge disparity” in evidence against the two. He argued evidence against Richard Scruggs seemed more substantial than that gathered against his client.
“Their proof against Zach is so minimal,” Graves said. “The proof that they’re going to offer against his father would be a lot more than that. And our concern is a jury wouldn’t be able to judge him based solely on the minimal proof (prosecutors) indicate they’re going to offer at this point.”
In one instance, he said the government claims Zach Scruggs took part in a recorded conversation about the alleged Lackey bribe on Nov. 1. Graves told the court, however, he doubted prosecutors could show Zach Scruggs was in the room for much of the conversation. That secretly recorded conversation included references to “sweet potatoes” – code, authorities say, for the money paid to Lackey.
“He was in the room for a very short period of time where the government alleges code words were being spoken,” Graves said Sunday. “But if you’re not part of the conspiracy, a code word doesn’t mean anything to you.”
Tom Dawson, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Mississippi, took issue with Graves’ description of the case against Zach Scruggs during the hearing. He said there was not only evidence that the younger Scruggs actively participated in the conspiracy, but that he also may have been a part of another bribery scheme.
Biggers also will rule Tuesday on whether to allow testimony about Scruggs’ participation in another alleged conspiracy to bribe Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
Dawson said the DeLaughter bribery allegations are being investigated by the Public Integrity section at the U.S. Department of Justice. DeLaughter has not been named in any indictment and has denied wrongdoing.
“We have become aware of some evidence that might indicate that Zach Scruggs had some knowledge of the backdoor attempt to influence a judge,” Dawson told the court.
Dawson also said Graves was understating Zach Scruggs’ involvement in the alleged bribery of Lackey. He noted that federal witness Timothy Balducci, who has pleaded guilty in the conspiracy, testified Zach Scruggs was the lawyer who brought up the idea of Balducci approaching Lackey, his good friend, in an attempt to persuade him to rule in their favor.
And he quoted a transcript of a recording Balducci made of a meeting that allegedly involved the Scruggses.
“Mr. Balducci says, ‘Zach, let me bring you up to speed. This is on the Judge Lackey thing,”‘ Dawson said.
“The statement is made, ‘We need to get this exactly right because we are paying for it.”‘
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