No Comment — December 11, 2007, 1:08 pm

Lott’s Lament

The town square of Oxford, Mississippi is an American literary landmark. Readers of William Faulkner know its profile instinctively: an array of storefronts, the county courthouse, and a town green in the center. Today the hotspots include Square Books, one of America’s best independent book stores, and a law office at the center of a criminal case that has all of Mississippi talking–the Scruggs Law Firm.

On November 28, U.S. Attorney Jim M. Greenlee announced the indictment of four Mississippi lawyers and one law firm employee on charges of attempting to bribe a state circuit judge, Henry L. Lackey. Among those named was Richard “Dickey” Scruggs, arguably the most famous and possibly the wealthiest trial lawyer in the United States, and after John Grisham’s departure the best-known citizen of Oxford. Also named was Zach Scruggs, his son and partner at the Scruggs Law Firm.

I have learned that the criminal investigation that produced the indictments may have a connection with events that rattled Washington only 36 hours before a team of FBI agents descended upon the Scruggs Law Firm in Oxford, when Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, who just secured reelection last year and had five years left on his term to serve, suddenly and dramatically announced that he was resigning from the Senate to pursue other objectives. His explanations produced blank stares. Washington insiders who were close to Lott rushed to explain that due to changes in lobbying restrictions, Lott would benefit from a transition to a K Street practice by leaving before year’s end. Others were unconvinced. (“Something’s seriously the matter,” one Republican strategist told me, “but I don’t have an inkling what it is.”)

The indictment against Scruggs alleges that the defendants conspired in an effort to bribe Judge Lackey to get a favorable result in a civil lawsuit involving a dispute over attorney’s fees from an insurance litigation. It details a series of meetings between Timothy Balducci, a lawyer who was aligned with Scruggs in the litigation, and the judge: Balducci is said to have broached the subject of a bribe for the first time on March 28, and to have said that he was acting with the authority of Scruggs; on September 21, he is alleged to have made an offer of $40,000 for a favorable decision in the case. The payment was subsequently made in a series of transfers during the fall.

Lackey, however, had immediately reported the first overture to the FBI and cooperated with them in a sting operation. The case presented in the indictment is direct and appears to rest on substantial, corroborated evidence. It’s difficult to make assessments based on a hearing of only one side, but the prosecution certainly appears to be holding a very impressive hand.Last Wednesday, one of the accused, Balducci entered a plea of guilty to conspiracy to bribe a judge. Balducci has been representing himself in the process; I would assume that Balducci expects to testify in exchange for a reduced sentence. A law enforcement official I interviewed, who for professional reasons asked to remain anonymous, told me that Scruggs’s junior partner Sidney Backstrom might take the same road as Balducci.

Scruggs’s name has figured prominently in another high profile case of judicial corruption. U.S. Attorney Dunnica Lampton brought charges against three judges and Scruggs’s close colleague, lawyer Paul Minor, in July 2003. The case produced a hung jury against Minor and two of the judges and was retried in 2007, then producing a conviction. That case is widely viewed in Mississippi and around the country as being a dubious and politically motivated use of the criminal justice system to settle scores. And one of the strangest aspects of the case was the absence of Dickie Scruggs. Defense witnesses in the case painted an account in which Scruggs was the mastermind and instigator of the campaign funding arrangements which the prosecutor sought to criminalize. Scruggs vehemently denied those accusations. In the end, Scruggs avoided being charged and enjoyed extraordinary protection–he was accompanied by Mississippi’s Attorney General into the Grand Jury room when he testified. When an FBI agent on the case noted the inexplicable treatment Scruggs enjoyed, he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay.

What allowed Scruggs to dodge the bullet in the prior case? Those who followed the case offer two explanations. First they point to Scruggs’s strong pattern of campaign donations to the Bush-Cheney campaign and to other Republican causes. He was one of the nation’s leading donors to the Bush campaign. And second, they point to his powerful brother-in-law: Trent Lott. The Biloxi Sun Herald reports that the Mississippi senator had weighed in to protect his bother-in-law with the investigative authorities. “Lott Asked Investigators About Scruggs,” Biloxi Sun Herald, May 31, 2006. One witness with whom I spoke recounts that prosecutors became agitated and called her a “liar” whenever she recounted Scruggs’s involvement in an aspect of the case. “It was plain,” she said, “that they never wanted to hear his name.”

Scruggs’s current problems, according to a variety of people with direct knowledge of the situation, do not seem to bear any relationship to the prior investigation and trial. The current case was launched in a different U.S. Attorney’s office with no overlap between the investigators and personnel involved. Moreover, it clearly does not stem from the investigation that led to the trials in Jackson, but rather comes directly from Judge Henry Lackey’s decision to report the overture to the FBI. On the other hand, the New York Times reported on Sunday that, according to an unnamed source, the investigation had opened up to examine Scruggs’s dealings with other judges, no doubt in an effort to see whether this episode was unique. On Monday, the FBI took the highly unusual step of raiding the office of Scruggs’s lawyer, Joey Langston. Law office raids generally require high-level authorization within the Department of Justice, frequently by the attorney general himself. This would suggest that the case against Scruggs has attention and direction at the highest level.

trent_lott_official_portrait

So what’s the tie to Trent Lott? I’ve asked many people (and again, none of them want to be named). Several very highly placed individuals from within the Mississippi legal system, one with personal knowledge of Lott, stated that Scruggs’s telephone calls with Lott were a subject of great interest to the investigators. Neither party knew about the bribery probe focusing on the overtures to Judge Lackey, so it is unlikely that Lott would have in any way been drawn into the matters at the heart of the case, and no one suggested at any point that Lott was in any way tied to the bribery case.

Throughout this period, Scruggs was facing trouble on another front. A federal judge in Alabama, William Acker, handed down a very strongly worded ruling in June in which he recommended that the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama prosecute Scruggs for the violation of a court order in some insurance litigation. The case was drawing a good deal of attention to Scruggs’s litigation tactics, which have widely been seen as pressing the outer boundaries of acceptable zeal, and clearly was troubling to Scruggs. Had Scruggs been seeking Lott’s intervention and help to bail himself out?

One thing is peculiar. Federal judges in the Northern District of Alabama didn’t want to have anything to do with the matter after Scruggs asked them to recuse themselves. And neither did the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham.

Here’s one scenario, which two senior law enforcement figures in Mississippi told me was “more than simply plausible.” The FBI had secured warrants to monitor Scruggs’s phone calls early in the course of the case, during the summer or early fall. In some of those conversations Dickie Scruggs asked for his brother-in-law’s help in fighting off Judge Acker’s attempts to have him prosecuted. Trent Lott picked up the phone and spoke with a few friends in the Justice Department–or perhaps even directly with a U.S. Attorney or two in Alabama, or a senator from Alabama–and asked them to lay off his misbehaving brother-in-law. My examination of prosecutions in Alabama over the last two years–of which the Siegelman case is the most notable–show that in few places in the country are the federal prosecutors’ offices so politically charged and motivated as in Alabama.

If the FBI was listening in, and it gathered information that Lott had tried to influence the situation to help bail out his brother-in-law, that would raise major issues. Politicians should not try to influence the course of specific criminal cases. Such interventions are not normally grist for a criminal investigation. Most likely they would evolve into an ethics investigation inside of Congress. Was Trent Lott facing this prospect when he decided to step down? (If that’s so, then his resignation parallels very closely that of Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, who was in just that predicament.)

When asked for comment, Senator Lott’s counsel Hugh Gamble responded:

Senator Lott’s announcement is in no way related to any legal issues and in no way has he been involved with this matter. U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee said, in a press conference, the matters were not related and drawing any connection based on a perceived plausibility is highly inaccurate and irresponsible.

Fair enough. That said, the two prominent figures in the Mississippi legal community mentioned above told me that Lott has recently engaged a well-regarded local criminal lawyer to advise him on some questions relating to the Scruggs case. There’s no crime in hiring a lawyer, but it does point to Senator Lott having on-going dealings with the U.S. Attorney handling the Scruggs case.

Might the prosecutors have asked Trent Lott, one of Washington’s political titans, to resign as part of a deal? A week ago I would have found that very far-fetched, but now I am not so sure.

Scruggs’s office did not reply when asked for comment. I will update this story if they do.

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