Judge: Scruggs indictment stands; Lott’s name mentioned

Published 5:21 pm Thursday, February 21, 2008

Powerful plaintiffs attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs tried to use his brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, to influence the ruling of a sitting Mississippi judge, a government witness testified Wednesday in federal court.

The testimony about Lott came during a hearing in a separate federal case in which Scruggs, his son Zach, and law partner Sidney Backstrom are charged with trying to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey to get a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees.

Lott is not charged with any wrongdoing in either case.

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U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. refused Wednesday to dismiss the charges against Scruggs and others in the alleged bribery attempt involving Lackey. A trial is scheduled to start March 31.

Former New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci, who has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and is helping prosecutors in their case against Scruggs, brought up Lott’s name during his testimony.

Prosecutors say Balducci approached Lackey with a “bribe overture” last year. The judge reported the attempt and worked undercover for the FBI. Balducci allegedly delivered $40,000 to Lackey in three installments between last September and November.

When asked if he was sure Scruggs was actively involved in the conspiracy, Balducci said yes and said he was also privy to another alleged attempt by the Scruggs Law Firm to influence a judge for a favorable ruling.

When pressed by Scruggs’ attorney, John Keker, Balducci testified that Scruggs had tried to use Lott to influence rulings made by Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in another dispute involving legal fees. Delaughter has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.

“(DeLaughter) was offered the influence of Mr. Scruggs’ brother-in-law, who was Sen. Trent Lott, to put him on a list to be considered and be considered for a federal vacancy,” Balducci testified.

Balducci testified that Lott made the call during the first quarter of 2006.

When asked how he knew about the Lott matter, Balducci said he was involved in meetings with a Scruggs Law Firm staffer where it was discussed and that he has seen “draft orders that were going to be entered by Judge DeLaughter.”

The Brett Boyles, Lott’s former chief of staff has said that the then-senator did call DeLaughter about a vacancy in the federal court system but that Lott had made numerous courtesy calls as a U.S. senator related to court vacancies. Lott recommended Gulf Coast attorney Sul Ozerden for the post.

In the alleged attempt to bribe Lackey, Scruggs and his associates were indicted on Nov. 28. Richard and Zach Scruggs and Backstrom have pleaded not guilty. They say Balducci acted alone. Former state auditor Steve Paterson, who is Balducci’s former business partner, also pleaded guilty in the case.

On Jan. 7, Richard Scruggs’ former defense attorney, Joey Langston, pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally influence DeLaughter in a dispute with other lawyers over fees from asbestos litigation.

Balducci testified that Zach Scruggs suggested Balducci have an off-the-record conversation with Lackey and persuade him to rule in their favor. After that discussion, Balducci said he met with Lackey on March 28.

On Tuesday, federal prosecutors filed with the court transcripts from some wire taps to support their case. The transcripts appear to contain conversations in which Scruggs and others discuss the wording they want in Lackey’s order in the fee dispute case.

When pressed about who came up with the idea to pay Lackey first, Balducci testified that the judge was the first to suggest he be paid to send the case to arbitration. Balducci met with him in person on Sept. 21 to find out exactly what the judge wanted.

“We talked about the case,” Balducci said. “We talked about the fact that he said he was in a position he had gotten himself into. He’d created a hump that he needed to get over and gotten himself into a fix that he needed $40,000 to get out of. I told him I thought Mr. Scruggs would give him the $40,000 to rule in his favor.”