Scruggs’ conviction upheld by federal appeals panel

By Chris Dickerson | Apr 14, 2013

NEW ORLEANS (Legal Newsline) — A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the corruption conviction of disgraced attorney Dickie Scruggs.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday affirmed a lower court ruling. In 2009, Scruggs pleaded guilty to influencing former Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter. At the time of the plea, Scruggs already was serving a five-year sentence on charges from another judicial corruption case.

Before today’s ruling, Scruggs was free on $2 million bond.

Officials say Scruggs told DeLaughter he would push DeLaughter for a federal judicial appointment to his brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott. In 2009, DeLaughter pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. He now is free.

In the 16-page ruling, the panel provided background in the case.

“Scruggs made both a name and a fortune as a plaintiffs’ attorney in asbestos and tobacco litigation,” the panel wrote. “Along the way, he became entangled in many fee-sharing disputes with co-counsel.” One landed before DeLaughter, who was known for prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

“DeLaughter coveted a federal Article III judgeship more than anything else,” the panel wrote. “In early 2006, Scruggs retained Ed Peters, a close friend and mentor of DeLaughter’s, as a secret go-between who conveyed an offer: If DeLaughter would help Scruggs win (his case), Scruggs would recommend DeLaughter to Lott for a district court judgeship.”

When this information came to light through investigation of an unrelated charge against Scruggs, he pleaded guilty to corruption charges. But in June 2011, Scruggs filed a motion to vacate his sentence because he never admitted to bribing DeLaughter, so he said he wasn’t guilty of a crime.

The three-judge panel didn’t seem to care.

“Scruggs pleaded guilty,” the wrote. “A voluntary and unconditional guilty plea waives all non-jurisdictional defects. Not surprisingly, then, most of the issues raised by Scruggs in this appeal are attempts to evade that waiver.

“Because his information does not use the word ‘bribe,’ Scruggs urges that it no longer charges an offense. Therefore, he contends, the district court had no jurisdiction over his ‘non-offense’ and could not accept his guilty plea. … The district court rejected each argument, and we agree.”

During last month’s oral arguments, attorneys Edward “Chip” Robertson Jr. and former Mississippi attorney general Michael Moore said Scruggs did not offer former-Hinds County Judge Bobby DeLaughter “anything of value.”

Scruggs, who at the time was serving a five-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2008 to bribing Lafayette County Judge Henry Lackey, had said he would suggest DeLaughter be given a federal judgeship. Scruggs, 66, insists that was “political speech.”

The government, represented by Robert Norman, argued that the suggestion of a federal judgeship has value.

DeLaughter says he was not bribed, but he did plead guilty to improper communications about the Scruggs lawsuit. He served prison time, but it now free.

Both DeLaughter and Lackey presided over Katrina-related legal fees lawsuits against Scruggs and others. Scruggs is free on bond while the appeal is considered. He’s completed his sentence in the Lackey affair.

The three-judge federal panel hearing the arguments were Chief Judge Charles Stewart, Judge Jerry Smith and Judge J.L. Wiener Jr.

Last year, Scruggs argued that his guilty pleas in the two bribery schemes should be vacated.

Scruggs, his son Zach, attorneys Sidney Backstrom and Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson were charged in 2007 with attempting to bribe Lackey with $50,000 for a favorable ruling in a dispute over Hurricane Katrina attorneys fees.

All five pleaded guilty, and Dickie Scruggs received a five-year prison sentence.

It is also alleged that Scruggs paid $1 million to former Hinds District Attorney Ed Peters, who used to work with DeLaughter, to bribe the judge with the promise of a federal judgeship. Scruggs’ brother-in-law is former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, who resigned a week before the charges were filed.

Dickie Scruggs pleaded guilty to the scheme, receiving an extra 2 1/2 years in prison. His attorney, Joey Langston, received three years when he pleaded guilty to the scheme.

Known as an asbestos attorney, Dickie Scruggs gained notoriety when his work helped lead to the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which has an estimated worth of $246 billion for the 52 participating territories and states. Mississippi is not one of them, but has its own separate agreement.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court said it wouldn’t consider Zach Scruggs’ appeal from the 5th Circuit. Zach Scruggs said he should be cleared of felony charges.

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