Former Mississippi Lawyer Scruggs to Begin Prison Term in Kentucky

August 4, 2008

Not so long ago, former Mississippi-based Richard “Dickie” Scruggs was one of the most powerful civil lawsuit attorneys in the country. In prison, he will be inmate No. 12734-042.

Scruggs, 62, must report to a federal prison in Kentucky by 2 p.m. Aug. 4 to begin serving a five-year sentence for conspiring to bribe a judge. His law partner goes to prison the same day. And Scruggs’ son, a lawyer who also worked with his father’s Oxford law firm, must turn himself in later this month.

Scruggs reached the pinnacle of his career in the 1990s by using a corporate insider against tobacco companies in lawsuits that resulted in a multibillion dollar nationwide settlement.

The case made Scruggs one of the richest lawyers in America and was portrayed in the 1999 film “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

A scene from the movie was shot at Scruggs’ waterfront home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina destroyed that home and many others in August 2005. Eventually, the money Scruggs wrested from an insurance company on behalf of other Katrina victims would be his downfall.

The end of Scruggs’ storied career began in a dispute with his associates over $26.5 million dollars in legal fees from a mass settlement of Katrina insurance cases. He was indicted in November after an associate secretly recorded conversations about a plan to bribe a judge for a favorable ruling in the dispute. His son, Zach Scruggs, and a law partner, Sidney Backstrom, were also charged.

The indictment came as a shock to many people. Scruggs had come from a modest upbringing and used an easygoing Southern charm and the confidence of a Navy fighter pilot to build extreme wealth and power. His cut in the tobacco litigation was reportedly almost $850 million.

In the end, the indictment reached far beyond the courtroom. Scruggs had been planning to host former President Bill Clinton at his home to raise money for Sen. Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. The event was quickly canceled. The University of Mississippi stripped the Scruggs name off a building at his request. Some politicians returned his campaign donations. He has also been disbarred.

During the elder Scruggs’ sentencing in June, the courtroom was packed with his friends and relatives. Many people gasped when he nearly fell to his knees as he stood before the judge. Scruggs had to be steadied by the hand of his attorney and then provided a chair. He stood back up and admitted his mistake.

“I could not be more ashamed than to be where I am today, mixed up in a judicial bribery scheme that I participated in. I realized that I was getting mixed up in it. And I will go to my grave wondering why,” Scruggs said then. “I have disappointed everyone in my life.”

“I hope to come out of this a better man, your honor,” Scruggs said. “Thank you.”

Scruggs asked to serve his time at the federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., the same minimum security facility where another once prominent Mississippi attorney and Scruggs’ associate, Paul Minor, is serving an 11-year sentence for bribing two state court judges.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, however, decided to send Scruggs to the federal prison in Ashland, Ky., which houses low- and minimum-security inmates.

Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the prison bureau, would not say why Scruggs request to go to the Florida prison was denied. Nor would she divulge Scruggs’ security level.

There are 1,238 prisoners in the main facility of the Kentucky prison and 286 in a minimum-security prison camp there, Billingsley said. Every prisoner who is able to work must have a job, which range from food service to groundskeeper.

“It’s based on the needs of the institution,” she said. The inmates earn between 12 cents and 40 cents an hour working five days a week.

Backstrom and Zach Scruggs are being sent to the Federal Correctional Institution Satellite Camp in Forrest City, Ark. Backstrom was sentenced to 28 months. Zach Scruggs was sentenced to 14 months for knowing about the bribery scheme and not reporting it. He must report to prison by Aug. 25

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