Mississippi Tort Attorney Takes 5th over Bribery Questions

April 17, 2008

Embattled Mississippi tort attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs was called to testify Tuesday in a civil trial but invoked his 5th Amendment right against self incrimination when questioned about his role in a bribery scheme.

Scruggs was called to testify in Lafayette County Circuit Court in a lawsuit over $26.5 million in legal fees. The lawsuit was filed against Scruggs by a law firm that claims it was shortchanged for its work on Hurricane Katrina litigation.

It’s the same case that led to federal bribery charges against Scruggs, his son and several associates. The men have all pleaded guilty to charges related to a conspiracy to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey for a favorable ruling in the case.

Lackey, who also took the stand Tuesday, reported the bribe attempt last year and worked undercover with the FBI. Special Circuit Judge William Coleman was appointed to preside over the fee dispute case and will make a ruling Wednesday morning.

Scruggs took the 5th at least 19 times Tuesday when asked about the bribery scheme.

Lackey testified that he initially didn’t want to believe that his friend, New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci, was trying to influence him on Scruggs’ behalf. Balducci was the first person to plead guilty in the federal bribery probe. He has cooperated with authorities.

Lackey reported a bribe “overture” and federal authorities began listening to his conversations with Balducci. Eventually Lackey agreed to ask Balducci for money in exchange for ruling on Scruggs’ behalf.

“I had just hoped Tim would have said, ‘Judge you misunderstood me. I’m sorry, just forget what I said,”‘ Lackey testified.

Lackey said Balducci soon brought him $20,000 in cash stuffed in an envelope and later returned on two different occasions with $10,000 each time.

Attorneys representing the Jones, Funderburg, Sessums, Peterson & Lee law firm, which sued Scruggs in March 2007 over the disputed fees, want the judge to enter a default judgment, Roy Percy, one of the firm’s attorneys, said Monday.

The lawsuit alleged Scruggs and the others conspired to “freeze out” the Jones firm and offered it a “ridiculously low figure” for its work on Katrina cases.

Scruggs pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the bribery case on March 14. He has not been sentenced. Four others are awaiting sentencing.

Scruggs, the brother-in-law of former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, is one if the wealthiest and best known tort attorneys in the country.

Scruggs reportedly earned about $848 million for his part in brokering a multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the mid-1990s. That case was portrayed in the 1999 movie “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

Information from: Oxford Eagle, http://www.oxfordeagle.com

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