Patterson agrees to plead guilty in Miss. judicial bribery case

Published 5:39 pm Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Two more key figures in a high-profile judicial bribery case are cooperating with federal prosecutors in an investigation that has entangled politically connected trial lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, court documents showed Monday.

Scruggs made national headlines by suing asbestos and tobacco companies in the early 1990s. He set his sights on insurance companies after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast and sued on behalf of homeowners. Now his storied career is threatened by the unfolding bribery investigation.

Court papers released Monday show that former state Auditor Steve Patterson has agreed to plead guilty to conspiring with Scruggs and others to bribe Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey. Patterson is cooperating with investigators. Lackey has not been charged, and prosecutors have praised him for reporting the bribe “overture” and working undercover.

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Patterson, Scruggs and Scruggs’ son were among those indicted Nov. 28 on charges of offering Lackey a bribe in a dispute over $26.5 million in attorneys’ fees from a mass settlement of Katrina lawsuits. Patterson is not an attorney but worked for a north Mississippi law firm.

Meanwhile, other court records unsealed Monday show that attorney Joey Langston pleaded guilty last week to conspiring with Scruggs in a scheme to influence Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in a separate dispute over attorneys’ fees.

Langston, who briefly represented Scruggs on the bribery charges in the case involving Lackey, is now cooperating with prosecutors.

DeLaughter, who presided over a 1994 lawsuit against Scruggs in which other lawyers were seeking a greater share of fees from asbestos cases, has not been charged with any wrongdoing and he denies accepting any type of bribe.

Prosecutors say Langston conspired with others to get a favorable ruling for Scruggs in the 1994 case by offering to help DeLaughter get appointed to the federal bench.

Scruggs is the brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott. One of Lott’s duties as a senator was to recommend nominees for federal judgeships. Lott resigned from the Senate in December and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Lott did call DeLaughter about a vacancy in the federal court system, but Brett Boyles, the former senator’s chief of staff, said late Monday that Lott made numerous courtesy calls related to court vacancies.

However, “early on (Lott) wanted someone from south Mississippi and Sul Ozerden was his choice,” Boyles said.

Last August, Halil “Sul” Ozerden, of Gulfport, was sworn in as a federal judge in Mississippi.

“Dick Scruggs had no influence in the judicial selection process,” Boyles added.

Patterson, a Democrat who resigned as state auditor in 1996, is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday to enter his guilty plea to conspiring to bribe an elected state official. The charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Scruggs does not face any new charges in the court papers made public Monday. A hearing in the bribery case is scheduled for Wednesday in Oxford.

John Keker, an attorney for Scruggs, said his client didn’t try to influence DeLaughter. Keker also said he doesn’t see any evidence that the judge was improperly influenced by anybody.

“Whatever problems Joey Langston has are his own problems, not Dickie Scruggs’ problems,” Keker said. “I don’t know why (Langston) pleaded guilty.”

Federal prosecutors charge that Langston, from about January 2006 to March 2007, conspired with Scruggs and others to influence DeLaughter by offering him “favorable consideration” for the federal judgeship in exchange for rulings that benefited Scruggs in the 1994 case.

Langston pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to corruptly influence a state official and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators.

Although the charge to which Langston pleaded guilty carries a maximum prison sentence of five years, prosecutors say they won’t seek more than three years or forfeiture of his assets.

Langston is cooperating with authorities because he wants to “make this right,” said his attorney, Tony Farese.

“Joey accepts full responsibility for his conduct in this matter. I’ve never had a client that I believe is any more remorseful than Mr. Langston is about his role in this matter,” Farese said.

Hiram Eastland Jr., a lawyer for Patterson, said prosecutors have agreed not to file additional charges against his client.

“There is much legal parsing of the facts and law left to play out in this case and another story and profound perspective to unfold,” Eastland said. “He is fully cooperating with the government in any way he can, and he is facing this very trying time with faith and like a man.”

Another of the men indicted with Scruggs on Nov. 28, attorney Timothy Balducci, was the first to plead guilty and has also been cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Balducci and Langston, former law partners, have been political contributors to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood and worked on lawsuits on behalf of the state. Langston was a special assistant attorney general under Hood.

Hood said Monday that Langston “has been removed from any further representation of the state.”

When Langston, Balducci and Patterson conspired to influence DeLaughter in the case from 1994, they solicited the help of “a close personal friend” of DeLaughter to try to persuade the judge to rule in Scruggs’ favor, according to the records unsealed Monday. The unnamed “friend” was allegedly paid $50,000 for his help.

Patterson, Langston and the judge’s friend also split $3 million that Scruggs saved as a result of decisions made in the case, the records said.

The Clarion-Ledger newspaper has reported that court documents allege former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters had been involved in trying to influence DeLaughter. Peters has not returned phone calls placed by the AP.

DeLaughter, a former assistant district attorney under Peters, is renowned for successfully prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith in the early 1990s for the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medger Evers.

During a telephone interview with the AP last week, DeLaughter urged people to read his ruling in the case before passing judgment.

“I have not taken any bribes of any sort. Have not issued any rulings in exchange for money or anything else,” DeLaughter said. “If one were to go back and look at my very lengthy and detailed ruling, I think it would be very evident … they are on a solid legal basis and would stand any scrutiny.”