Hearing set for Wednesday in judicial bribery case

Published 4:48 pm Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A motions hearing was scheduled for Wednesday in the highest profile judicial bribery trial in Mississippi in years.

Famed plaintiffs lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, his son Zach, and an associate are accused of trying to bribe a Lafayette County Circuit Court judge in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina cases.

Among the motions that could be taken up Wednesday in the federal court in Oxford are requests to dismiss certain charges, to move the trial out of Mississippi, and to keep wire tap evidence from being admitted as evidence.

Transcripts from some of those wire taps were submitted Tuesday by prosecutors who say no charges should be dismissed and the secretly recorded conversations should be admitted.

The transcripts appear to contain conversations in which Scruggs and others discuss the wording they want in a judge’s order in the fee dispute case. It is not uncommon for attorneys to submit a proposed order for a judge to consider in his ruling. However, it would not involve a payment to a judge.

The person in the transcripts who comments regarding a possible payment for the order is New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci. Balducci was the first person to plead guilty in the case and was the one who apparently wore an FBI recording device.

Balducci was also the one who approached Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with a “bribe overture” last year, prosecutors say. The judge reported the attempt and worked undercover for the FBI. Balducci allegedly delivered $40,000 to the judge in three installments between September and November of 2007.

Balducci delivered the last $10,000 payment on Nov. 1, 2007, and was confronted by the FBI, according to court records. Later that day, Balducci wore a wire when he spoke with Scruggs, Scruggs’ son and law partner Zach, and Sidney Backstrom, another attorney for the Scruggs Law Firm, according to court records and transcripts of the secret recordings.

The men were all indicted on Nov. 28. Richard and Zach Scruggs and Backstrom have pleaded not guilty. They say Balducci acted alone. Former State Auditor Steve Paterson, Balducci’s former business partner, and Richard Scruggs’ former defense attorney, Joey Langston, have pleaded guilty to charges that arose from the case.

Scruggs’ lead attorney, John Keker, did not respond Tuesday to a message left at his office.

The transcripts filed Tuesday were exhibits to motions in which federal prosecutors argued against dismissing the charges or suppressing the wire tap evidence.

In the transcript of one of the alleged conversations on Nov. 1, 2007, Balducci and Richard Scruggs discuss a potential judge’s order. The first apparent mention of money in that conversation is when Balducci suggests that someone wants to know if “I think that you would do a little something else, you know, ’bout ten or so more?”

However, before Scruggs can answer the question, the office door opens and an unidentified woman tells Scruggs that “Governor Minter of Delaware is on the phone,” according to the transcript.

Scruggs says he will call Minter back, and that he does not know Minter.

Balducci then asks Scruggs whether he should “cover that or not.”

Scruggs: “Hmmm.”

Balducci: “Because I’ve already, you know, taken care of everything and I’m just …”

Scruggs: “Uh, I’ll take care of it. Uh, I need uh, some suggested …”

Balducci: “Well …”

Scruggs: “…voir dire from you.”

The remainder of the transcript is primarily a series of rambling, incomplete sentences in which Scruggs and Balducci discuss Balducci working on jury instructions for another case. Prosecutors claim that Richard Scruggs and Balducci created a paper trail to conceal the fact that Richard Scruggs was the source of the alleged bribe money.

Balducci is more direct in a conversation with Zach Scruggs and Backstrom earlier on the same day when they allegedly discussed the judge’s order, according to the transcripts. At one point in the conversation the men discuss the possibility that a new judge could one day end up with the case.

“Well, what if Judge Lackey retires off the bench and some other (expletive) gets a hold of it,” Zach Scruggs said, according to the transcript.

Balducci says later in the transcript: “So get it right. Get it how you want it ’cause we’re paying for it to get it done right.”

Backstrom allegedly responds by reading a portion of the order then saying: “That, you know, that’s good enough to me. I wouldn’t change anything.”

There is a note in the transcript that Zach Scruggs leaves the room. He is not recorded as responding to Balducci’s statement about paying for the order.