Judge dismisses Ala. contempt case against Scruggs

Published 12:09 am Sunday, March 2, 2008

A federal judge dismissed a criminal contempt charge against Mississippi attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs on Friday, giving the prominent lawyer one less case to worry about as he fights a more serious bribery indictment.

U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson ruled that an Alabama court lacked jurisdiction to charge Scruggs with contempt for allegedly ignoring an order to turn over documents about insurance claims after Hurricane Katrina.

Also, Vinson said, Scruggs was protected from prosecution because he gave the papers to Mississippi’s attorney general, Jim Hood, who was probing fraud allegations related to Katrina.

The decision was a clear victory for Scruggs, but it didn’t affect the bribery case in Mississippi, where Scruggs is accused of conspiring to bribe a judge over $26.5 million in attorney fees stemming from a huge settlement with State Farm insurance over Katrina claims.

Attorneys for Scruggs did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment. Neither did U.S. District Judge William Acker, who initiated the contempt case against Scruggs.

Scruggs was accused of violating an order to surrender documents taken from the Alabama-based E.A. Renfroe and Co. Inc., which adjusted claims for State Farm insurance after Katrina.

Renfroe filed suit in Alabama seeking the records, which were taken by two sisters who worked for the company after the hurricane. The women provided documents to Scruggs, and Acker sought the prosecution of Scruggs after ruling he violated an order to return the papers to Renfroe.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Birmingham declined to prosecute Scruggs, so Acker appointed special prosecutors who moved forward with the case. Vinson, from Pensacola, Fla., was brought in to preside after Alabama judges stepped aside.

In his decision, Vinson said he was troubled by Scruggs’ actions. He said there was a “cloud of suspicion” surrounding Scruggs’ decision to give the papers to Hood instead of the Renfroe and Co.

Scruggs can’t be cited for criminal contempt since he wasn’t formally involved in the Alabama case, Vinson said. Also, he said, Acker’s order did allow for the documents to be turned over to law enforcement, and Hood qualifies as the Mississippi attorney general.

In Mississippi, Scruggs and four other men were indictment in November in the judicial bribery case. Two of the original defendants have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with authorities.