Scruggs gets 5 years in prison in bribery scheme

Published 10:37 pm Saturday, June 28, 2008

Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, who became one of the wealthiest civil lawsuit attorneys in the country by taking on tobacco, asbestos and insurance companies, was sentenced Friday to five years in prison for conspiring to bribe a judge.

Scruggs, 62, nearly fainted as the judge scolded him for his conduct, and people in the courtroom gasped as he swayed side to side. He had to be seated for a time before the sentence was read, but later stood back up.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. called Scruggs’ conduct “reprehensible” and fined him $250,000. Scruggs will also lose his law license. The judge handed down the full sentence requested by prosecutors despite arguments from the defense for half that time in prison.

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“I could not be more ashamed of where I am today, mixed up in a judicial bribery scheme,” Scruggs told the judge. “I have disappointed everyone in my life.”

Scruggs was indicted in November along with his son and a law partner after an associate wore a wire for the FBI and secretly recorded conversations about the bribe plan. Prosecutors said he wanted a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Hurricane Katrina insurance cases.

Biggers said that after reviewing evidence, including the secretly recorded conversations, “it made me think perhaps this was not the first time you did this because you did it so easily. And there is evidence before the court that you have done it before.”

Prosecutors are looking into another alleged bribery conspiracy in which Scruggs is accused of trying to influence a different judge in a dispute over legal fees from asbestos cases. Scruggs’ former defense attorney has pleaded guilty in that case and is cooperating with investigators.

Scruggs gained fame in the 1990s by using a corporate insider against tobacco companies in lawsuits that resulted in a $206 billion settlement. That case was portrayed in the 1999 film “The Insider” that starred Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

He initially denied wrongdoing in the bribery attempt case. But in March, Scruggs and former law partner Sidney Backstrom pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey with $50,000.

“You picked the wrong man to try to bribe,” Biggers said of Lackey, who reported the bribe attempt to authorities.

Backstrom was sentenced Friday to two years and four months in prison and fined $250,000. Biggers said he was impressed that Backstrom seemed remorseful about his role in the case.

“I cannot say that I have seen that kind of remorse from your co-defendants,” the judge said.

Scruggs’ son, Zach Scruggs, pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, meaning he knew a crime was committed but didn’t report it. He is scheduled to be sentenced next week.

U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee called the case “profoundly sad” but declined to comment further because the investigation is ongoing.

Scruggs’ former defense attorney, Joey Langston of Booneville, has pleaded guilty to trying to influence Hinds County Judge Bobby DeLaughter in the asbestos fee case by promising that Scruggs could help DeLaughter get appointed to the federal bench with the help of U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, Scruggs’ brother-in-law.

Scruggs and the others have not been charged in that case.

Scruggs must report to prison by Aug. 4 and pay the fine within 30 days.

He asked to serve his time at the federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla., the same minimum security prison where another prominent Mississippi attorney and Scruggs associate, Paul Minor, is serving an 11-year sentence for bribing two state court judges.

Many high-profile friends had sought leniency for Scruggs in letters to the federal judge, including Former “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman and tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, both portrayed in “The Insider.”

Scruggs left the red brick courthouse without comment and drove away with his family and attorney.