Lawyer in bribe case objects to sentencing report

Published 5:57 pm Friday, June 13, 2008

A Mississippi lawyer who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a state judge is challenging the contents of a report designed to help a federal judge calculate his sentence.

In court papers filed Wednesday, attorney Sidney Backstrom says a pre-sentence report prepared by probation officials overstates his role in the judicial bribery case that also snared high-profile tort lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.

Backstrom says the report incorrectly claims that he recruited, supervised or managed attorney Timothy Balducci, who also has pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey for a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in attorneys fees. Lackey reported the bribe attempt last year and worked undercover with the FBI.

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Backstrom claims he merely answered to Scruggs and performed tasks at the direction of Balducci.

“Dick Scruggs was the senior partner in The Scruggs Law Firm, primary owner of the firm and firm leader. Mr. Backstrom is a worker who takes on the yeoman task of getting work out,” Frank Trapp, one of Backstrom’s lawyers, wrote in a 16-page memo.

A federal judge in Oxford is scheduled to sentence Backstrom and Richard Scruggs on June 27. Sentencing for Scruggs’ son and law partner, Zach, is set for July 2. Zach Scruggs pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, which means he had knowledge of a felony but didn’t report it.

The probation department’s report isn’t part of a public record of the case.

Backstrom also objects to the report’s conclusion that the defendants’ “net benefit” from bribing Lackey was $5.3 million — or one-fifth of the $26.5 million in fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina insurance lawsuits.

Other lawyers who had worked with Scruggs on the settlement sued him for a greater share of the fees. Prosecutors claim Scruggs, his son, Backstrom and Balducci conspired to pay Lackey $40,000 in exchange for an order that would have sent that lawsuit to arbitration.

Backstrom argues that $40,000, not $5.3 million, is the amount that U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers should use to calculate a sentence in the criminal case.

“It does seem a bit harsh that they have chosen the amount of the dispute rather than the amount of the bribe,” said Dane Ciolino, a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who reviewed the probation officials’ report.

Ciolino said the judge isn’t bound by the report’s conclusions or the sentencing guidelines, but he added, “As a practical matter, they still do follow them.”