AG says he’ll help DAs if they start bribery investigation

Published 6:50 pm Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Attorney General Jim Hood has written letters to three district attorneys, offering to assist if they launch a state investigation into judicial bribery allegations that are already part of a high-profile federal inquiry.

However, the federal trial of plaintiffs attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, his son Zach, and an associate begins March 31 and state charges are not likely at this time.

The Scruggses and law partner Sidney Backstrom have pleaded not guilty and say they did nothing wrong.

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In the letters, dated Feb. 25, Hood said “the full resources of my office will be available to you should you chose to pursue state charges.”

The letters are significant because Hood has already said publicly that his office will not lead an investigation into the allegations, citing his close relationship with those involved.

“I have stated that I believe the federal government is conducting a fair and thorough investigation and that a state investigation could impede their efforts,” Hood wrote in the letters. “Once a federal investigation is finished, however, state charges are often brought as well through the district attorney’s office.”

District Attorney Ben Creekmore was one of the recipients of the letter. His district includes Lafayette County, which is where Scruggs allegedly conspired to bribe a judge in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina cases.

Creekmore would not rule out a state probe in the future, but said he is not investigating Scruggs and the others at this time.

“Now is not the time for that,” Creekmore told AP on Tuesday. “I think at the appropriate time, we’ll see if there are any unique state crimes that need to be addressed.”

Scruggs, one of the best known plaintiffs attorneys in the country, was indicted along with his son, and three associates in November on federal charges of conspiring to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Court Henry Lackey in the Katrina fee dispute.

Lackey reported a bribe overture to the FBI and worked undercover. Two of the men who were indicted, attorney Timothy Balducci and former State Auditor Steve Patterson, pleaded guilty and began working with the prosecution.

It wasn’t long before another attorney, Joey Langston, one of Hood’s biggest supporters and Scruggs former defense lawyer, pointed investigators to another case in which Scruggs allegedly tried to bribe a judge.

That case was a dispute over million of dollars in fees from asbestos litigation. Prosecutors say Scruggs tried to influence Hinds County Judge Bobby DeLaughter by promising that he could help DeLaughter get appointed to the federal bench. Scruggs and the others have not been charged in that case, which was in Hinds County.

Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith, the recipient of one of Hood’s letters, did not respond to a message left Tuesday at his office.

Hood also sent a letter to District Attorney John Young. Young was out of the office Tuesday and did not respond to a message.

In an interview with the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Young said he’s not sure if a crime occurred in his district, which includes Langston’s home in Booneville. Langston pleaded guilty to trying to bribe a judge in Hinds County, which is not in Young’s district.

“I would communicate with the U.S. attorney before I tried to take anything on,” Young told the newspaper. “We don’t normally prosecute people on crimes in both jurisdictions.”