NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) -- One of the lawyers representing a group of class action plaintiffs against oil giant BP also helped represent disgraced Mississippi attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.
According to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Scruggs hired Samuel Issacharoff, a New York University School of Law professor and well-known constitutional law specialist, to beef up his legal team ahead of a March 2012 conviction appeal hearing.
Issacharoff -- along with fellow NYU law professor Richard Pildes -- also authored an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on Scruggs’ behalf in another public corruption case, Siegelman v. USA.
In Siegelman, HealthSouth Corp. founder Richard Scrushy and former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman were found guilty on charges that Siegelman in 1999 appointed Scrushy to a state hospital regulatory board in exchange for $500,000 in political contributions.
Issacharoff -- known as a Renaissance man in the legal community -- argued in the amicus brief for Scruggs, filed in March 2012, that the Supreme Court should hear the case.
“This Court’s resolution of whether state campaign and referenda contributions can be treated as alleged bribes at all under the honest services law, and if so, what standard of proof is required to permit the federal government to transform these contributions into honest-services bribery, will have direct implications for the similar attempts of federal prosecutors to categorize other forms of state-level political activity, such as endorsements of judges for higher office, as federal crimes,” he wrote in the 19-page brief, noting that Scruggs had a “direct interest” in the questions presented.
Read the full brief here.
Ultimately, the nation’s high court decided not to hear Siegelman.
In April, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court ruling upholding Scruggs’ own corruption conviction.
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 the Fifth Circuit’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 their April 12 ruling. “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 panel 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 oral arguments held in March, attorneys Edward “Chip” Robertson Jr. and former Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore said Scruggs did not offer 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 argued that the suggestion of a federal judgeship has value.
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.
Meanwhile, Issacharoff has moved on to helping represent a group of class action plaintiffs suing BP.
On Monday, he served as counsel for the plaintiffs at a hearing held in a federal appeals court involving the administration of claims processing to individuals and businesses negatively affected by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The expedited appeal was taken up in the Fifth Circuit just a little over three months after defendant BP filed it on April 5.
At issue are claims by BP that the settlement process it agreed to in May 2012, which pays out settlements to businesses and individuals affected by the explosion of the BP-owned Deepwater Horizon oil rig, has been perverted to provide settlements over and above what those affected deserve in addition to being applied to businesses that were not affected by the spill.
BP originally estimated that the settlement to be worth $7.8 billion to the plaintiffs, but the claims process has no cap and is expected to grow substantially if the current process is left in place.
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.