Ex-Mississippi auditor sentenced in bribery case

Published 12:46 am Sunday, February 15, 2009

A former Mississippi state auditor and a disbarred lawyer were each sentenced to two years in federal prison Friday for their roles in a judicial bribery scheme that toppled famed tobacco litigator Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.

Scruggs, who earned a national reputation from the big tobacco settlements of the 1990s, has previously pleaded guilty to charges involving schemes to bribe two different judges. He is serving a seven-year prison sentence. Scruggs was sentenced to five years for conspiracy in one bribery case and seven years for mail fraud in another. The sentences run concurrently.

Former Mississippi Auditor Steve Patterson and disbarred attorney Timothy Balducci were involved in a conspiracy to bribe a judge in a dispute between Scruggs and other lawyers over $26.5 million in legal fees from Hurricane Katrina litigation, authorities said.

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Patterson was fined $150,000 and given a two-year sentence on a conspiracy charge. Balducci was given the same prison sentence but no fine because records showed he didn’t have the money to pay one.

It was revealed in court that Patterson had been receiving $80,000 a month in payments from the tobacco litigation. Scruggs was the chief architect of the tobacco settlements and earned more than $800 million. His efforts were depicted in the 1999 film “The Insider” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. It’s not clear what Patterson did to earn the money.

Patterson, who is not an attorney, resigned as auditor in 1996 after lying on state documents to avoid paying taxes on a car tag.

Balducci was his partner in a New Albany firm. He was caught delivering cash in 2007 to LaFayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey, who was working undercover for the FBI. Caught in the act, Balducci quickly turned on his friends and associates.

This is how prosecutors describe the conspiracy: Balducci approached the judge, a friend and mentor, with hopes of persuading him to rule in Scruggs’ favor. But Lackey, the prosecutors said, told the FBI about a bribe “overture” and the agents set up surveillance.

Eventually Balducci delivered several cash payments totaling $40,000, prosecutors said, and after the final delivery, the FBI arrested Balducci. He agreed to cooperate and was fitted with a wire. He then went to Scruggs’ Oxford office and said the judge wanted another $10,000 and recorded Scruggs and others discussing a proposed order, according to officials.

That led to guilty pleas from Scruggs, his son Zach, partner Sidney Backstrom and Patterson. Then Balducci pointed investigators to other alleged crimes, authorities said. Before long the FBI raided the office Scruggs’ lawyer, who was also Balducci’s former law partner, Joey Langston of Booneville.

Langston eventually pleaded guilty to trying to influence another judge, Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, on Scruggs’ behalf. DeLaughter was charged this week with five counts related to the alleged scheme.

DeLaughter was allegedly enticed to rule in Scruggs’ favor in a dispute over asbestos fees after he was promised that Scruggs’ brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott would help him get appointed to the federal bench. Scruggs pleaded guilty to mail fraud in the case. Lott has not been accused of wrongdoing.