Speculation continues to mount that central bribery-scandal figure Timothy Balducci may be cooperating with prosecutors, and perhaps has been doing so for some time; Balducci had not yet been arraigned as of this weekend, and the indictment quotes extensively from conversations he held with other defendants, in addition to those that took place in Judge Lackey’s bugged chambers. (Peter Lattman and Ashby Jones, “In Scruggs Probe, Focus Turns to Another Lawyer”, WSJ, Dec. 1)(sub-only). In the latest of his extensive posts on the case, David Rossmiller adds to the picture: “From the verbatim quotes by Balducci given in the indictment, one logically can surmise that investigators had substantial recorded evidence that would have given them tremendous leverage over Balducci in obtaining his cooperation against the others.” In addition, certain elements in the indictment’s description of Balducci’s actions suggest that by mid-October, presumably flipped by investigators, he had begun taking steps that could be used to document targets’ knowing participation in the conspiracy (in particular, his return to Dickie Scruggs to finance a purported second-round bribe, and his statement in the presence of Zach Scruggs and Sidney Backstrom that “we paid for this ruling”).
Rossmiller also analyzes the underlying Jones v. Scruggs dispute over legal fees, in which the Jones firm, formerly one of the five participants in the Scruggs Katrina Group (SKG), alleges that it was “frozen out” and ejected by the remaining four firms, allotted only token fees after shouldering the substantial work of case briefing. Why would it have been advantageous to the Scruggs firm to have Judge Lackey shunt this dispute into arbitration? One key reason is that proceeding with a court battle, even if successful, might have risked exposing to the public many of the internal workings of SKG and perhaps also of Scruggs’s own firm. (Having read the Jones complaint, I would note that Jones was alleging that Scruggs had made a common practice of squeezing collaborating lawyers out of their fee shares in earlier, unrelated litigation during his career. The evidence put forth to support such an allegation, apart from whether it turned out to support a claim for punitive damages, might result in public airing of all sorts of messy and embarrassing episodes from the past.)
John Jones and Steve Funderberg, the lawyers whose firm sued Scruggs et al in the underlying Jones v. Scruggs suit, have given an interview to the Mississippi press; Jones says he knows Scruggs well and has represented him in court, but that the relationship changed drastically “when the money hit the table”; of go-between Balducci, Funderberg said, “Knowing Tim Balducci as I do, I am utterly flabbergasted that he would ever be a part of something like that or believe he could ever get away with something like that”. (Jon Kalahar, “Former Scruggs Colleague Says Money Changed Him”, WTOK, Nov. 30).
At Y’AllPolitics, Alan Lange traces many of the recurring connections between the dramatis personae and notes that the “whole crowd” was deeply involved in the much-criticized MCI contingency-fee back taxes negotiation, which we posted on at the time at Point of Law. “Attorney General Jim Hood allowed his largest campaign contributor, Joey Langston, to be the plaintiff lawyer and also appointed Tim Balducci as a Special Assistant Attorney General in that case”. Langston, for whom Balducci used to work, is now among lawyers representing Scruggs.
Some noteworthy reactions to the indictments: “This is maybe the worst day of my life,” says longtime Scruggs friend Don Barrett, quoted in an Associated Press piece that also rounds up some of the high points of Scruggs’ career (Michael Kunzelman, “Scruggs’ career in jeopardy”, AP/Hattiesburg American, Dec. 1). “I’m disappointed in him,” Katrina client Lyman Cumbest of Pascagoula, who’s suing State Farm, said of Scruggs. “With all the money he had, he didn’t have to bribe a judge. He’s got more money than he could ever spend.” (“FBI probe in judicial bribe case to continue”, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Nov. 30). Byron Steir at Mass Tort Litigation Blog comments (Nov. 30):
If true, all of these allegations suggest remarkable hubris in at least some of the top plaintiffs’ lawyers. One wonders about the effect of a lifestyle of private jets and multiple wins of multiple millions (or tens of millions) in fees. One also wonders about the effect of high-risk, winner-take-all, contingency fee litigation. Brash and aggressive personalities seem to thrive in such an environment — but they too must keep in mind that lawyers ultimately serve the client (not the other way around) and that no one (especially not the lawyer) is above the law.
And more: “It just boggles the mind,” said Biloxi trial lawyer Jack Denton. “Here is a man who has had an enormous amount of success, who reached a level very few attorneys, if any, have reached. Why would he risk everything over a legal dispute over attorneys’ fees?” David Rossmiller, quoted in the same story, has one possible reply, which is that people may begin reevaluating “how this amazingly successful man got to be so amazingly successful.” (Richard Fausset and Jenny Jarvie, “Katrina lawyer at the eye of a storm”, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 30)(& welcome Tom Kirkendall readers).