Friends Seek Leniency for Well-known Mississippi Attorney

June 27, 2008

Some high-profile friends are seeking leniency for a well-known Mississippi attorney who took on tobacco, asbestos and insurance companies before he pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a state judge.

Attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and former law partner Sidney Backstrom are scheduled to be sentenced June 27 by U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr.

Former “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman and tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand are among those who wrote to Biggers on Scruggs’ behalf, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported. The letters were made public June 25.

Scruggs and Backstrom pleaded guilty in March to charges related to a conspiracy to bribe a judge with $50,000 in exchange for a favorable ruling in a dispute over legal fees from Hurricane Katrina lawsuits.

The plea ended Scruggs’ storied legal career. He reportedly earned hundreds of millions of dollars suing tobacco companies on behalf of sick smokers in the 1990s. His litigation on behalf of Mississippi was used as a model for other states that collected billions from tobacco companies.

Wigand, a tobacco industry insider turned whistleblower, was instrumental in the case. Bergman told his story on the CBS program “60 Minutes.” All three were portrayed in the movie “The Insider.”

“Without Mr. Scruggs, the revelations that appeared in court proceedings and the media about the tobacco industry, as well as the unprecedented settlements, simply would not have happened,” Bergman said in his letter.

Wigand wrote that he and others who knew Scruggs were shocked by the charges.

“How could a man with such a strong moral fiber err like this?” he wrote. “It was not in his moral and ethical fabric that this could be. He is a good man, an intrinsically honest lawyer, and a true friend who has made a mistake.”

Others who wrote letters for Scruggs and/or Backstrom included University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat and former Gov. William Winter.

Scruggs’ son, Zach Scruggs, will be sentenced July 2 for misprision of a felony, which means he knew a crime had been committed but did not report it.

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