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David Rossmiller, whose blog provided some of the most penetrating analysis of the Dickie Scruggs judicial corruption scandal of 2007-08, has now penned a review of one of the books to emerge from the scandal, “Kings of Tort” by Alan Lange and Tom Dawson. Rossmiller, an Oregon lawyer, also has some kind words for my book The Rule of Lawyers, published a few years earlier, which lays out the background for the scandal by showing how once-obscure plaintiff’s lawyers in states like Mississippi, working with courts known for “home cooking” and in alliance with local political figures, had begun redistributing billions of dollars in big-ticket litigation from tobacco and asbestos on down. [Mississippi College Law Review PDF via Insurance Coverage Blog; related here and here]

“The Fall of the House of Zeus,” by veteran newspaper reporter Curtis Wilkie, is reviewed at Lemuria Books and the Wall Street Journal. An earlier book on the same subject was “Kings of Tort”, by Alan Lange and Tom Dawson. We covered the Scruggs scandal extensively in 2007-2008.

During the long series of scandals that brought down former tort potentate Richard (“Dickie”) Scruggs, of tobacco-asbestos-Katrina-mass tort fame, no blogger achieved the status of “must” reading more consistently than David Rossmiller of Insurance Coverage Blog. Now Alan Lange of Mississippi site YallPolitics (and co-author of Kings of Tort, a book on the scandal) has posted a massive document dump of emails between the Scruggs camp and its public relations agency, as made public in later litigation (see also). It shows the principals:

* boasting of their success in manipulating major media outlets to inflict bad publicity on the targets of Scruggs’s suits;

* plotting ways of striking back against critics — in particular, Rossmiller — with tactics including going after him with legal process, as well as creating fake commenters and whole blogs to sow doubt about his reporting;

* wondering who they might pay to secure “Whistleblower of the Year” awards, or something similar, for their clients;

* apparently oblivious, just days before the fact, as to how the ceiling was going to cave in on them because of Judge Henry Lackey’s willingness to go to law enforcement to report a bribe attempt from the Scruggs camp.

The whole set of documents, along with Rossmiller’s summary and reaction, really must be seen to be believed. It will easily provide hours of eye-opening reading, both for those who followed the Scruggs affair in particular, and for everyone interested in how ambitious lawyers manipulate press coverage to their advantage — and how they can seek to use the law against their blogger critics. (& welcome readers from Forbes.com and Victoria Pynchon’s “On the Docket” column there).

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One is co-written by Alan Lange of YallPolitics blogging fame. [Freeland] More: Joe Palazzolo, “Scruggs Prosecutor Writes Tell-All Book”, Main Justice.

Ed Peters, the former Hinds County (Jackson) prosecutor who’s been a central figure in the still up-in-the-air Peters-DeLaughter branch of the Scruggs scandals, has turned in his law license (via) amid much Mississippi speculation that he is cooperating with prosecutors and that other developments are imminent. NMC at Folo tries to sort things out. And, just in time to be helpful, Alan Lange of YallPolitics has an article summarizing the scandal as it’s developed thus far.

ILR comments. The judge-bribing attorney had requested a 30-month sentence (in conjunction with the now-standard set of hundreds of letters listing his supposed good deeds); his plea agreement provided for a five-year maximum sentence, which he got. He’ll still have the jet and millions of dollars when he gets out, even after paying the $250,000 fine imposed at the sentencing. David Rossmiller and Folo will undoubtably continue their excellent coverage, or check our previous Dickie Scruggs coverage.

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“At its worst, the system is close to legalized extortion. … It would be nice if the class-action lawyers reformed themselves, but if not, someone should file a lawsuit.” But op-ed columnist David Ignatius regards Melvyn Weiss and Dickie Scruggs as “good guys” gone wrong and says what occasioned their downfall “was a system in which the money just got too big”. This suggests their practices were more honest and aboveboard at an earlier stage in their careers when the stakes were smaller, but Ignatius does not offer evidence for this view, and I wonder whether he has any (“Reining In the Kings of Tort”, Washington Post, Jun. 5).

Relatedly, the New Yorker published a big article last month on the Scruggs scandal by correspondent Peter Boyer. (“The Bribe”, May 19, abstract; PDF at WSJ law blog). David Rossmiller, unsurpassed chronicler of that scandal, does an excellent job explaining why the article is, not wrong, exactly, but disappointing (May 27).

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Disbar Dickie Scruggs?

by Walter Olson on April 2, 2008

Not so fast, he says — the Mississippi Bar didn’t file a “certified copy” of his guilty plea. (Patsy R. Brumfield, “Dickie Scruggs files to dismiss attempt to have him disbarred”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Apr. 1).

David Rossmiller has ten unanswered questions about loose ends in the Scruggs scandal (Mar. 24) which elicit responses in turn (and more unanswered questions) from NMC and Lotus at Folo (plus an NMC update). These latter bloggers, by the way, have shed their anonymity and stand revealed as Oxford, Miss. lawyer Tom Freeland (NMC) and retired lawyer Jan Goodrich, now of New Smyrna Beach, Fla. (Lotus), now also joined by Jane Tucker.

Is it okay for the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) to take Scruggs’s money? “It depends on what the felony is…” Chancellor Robert Khayat is quoted as saying (Folo/NMC, Apr. 1; more). Gulfport M.D. Bill Hemeter, in a letter to the editor printed in the Biloxi Sun-Herald (Mar. 19), is claiming prescience: “I sent Chancellor Khayat the book ‘The Rule of Lawyers’ by Walter Olson several years ago, with a warning not to take money from plaintiff attorneys.” Earlier, when Scruggs pled guilty, another university official was heard from:

“My initial reaction is one of sadness,” said Samuel Davis, dean of the University of Mississippi Law School, Scruggs’ alma mater. “I’ve known and been friends with Dick and Diane Scruggs almost 50 years now going back to our days in Pascagoula, and I feel a great sense of compassion for him and his family. And that’s just a very personal reaction. I haven’t really thought about the implications for the legal community or the legal profession.

Davis, who also directs the Ole Miss Law Center, said not everybody who pleads guilty is guilty and that Scruggs might have had other reasons for the move. If that were the case, Davis said, the reasons likely were good ones.

(emphasis added by an understandably astonished Lotus @ Folo; many, many comments follow).

And from Sid Salter of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger (Mar. 19): “In spite of their insistence that there were no ethical lapses in their behavior on the tobacco suit, [former attorney general Michael] Moore and Scruggs still owe the taxpayers of Mississippi an accounting of the lawyers’ fees and expenses that accrued from that litigation.”

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Scruggs in guilty plea

by Walter Olson on March 14, 2008

The WSJ and Mississippi’s WLOX have the news up on Dickie Scruggs’ plea of guilty to conspiracy in the attempted bribe of Judge Henry Lackey. Earlier today, the Journal had an illuminating page-one feature on Dickie Scruggs’s history of fee disputes with other lawyers. YallPolitics‘ server seems to be down at the moment from traffic, but is back up now; in an email alert, YP’s Alan Lange said the surprise plea came three days before the deadline for Scruggs to plead before his approaching trial. Our past coverage is here, or check our Scandals page.

Update 12:18 EST: AP coverage is here (via Rossmiller). Sid Backstrom also pleaded and, per Folo rapid updates, is cooperating with prosecutors. No deal for Zach Scruggs yet. Also per Folo, Scruggs pleaded to conspiracy in the Lackey bribe attempt but did not resolve possible charges in the DeLaughter case, per the government side.

12:44: Now Folo’s server has crashed. Temporary replacement site up here.

1:16: Per Patsy Brumfield at the NEMDJ:

…The government recommended a sentence of five years in prison for Scruggs and 2 1/2 years for Backstrom. They also will pay a maximum fine of $250,000 each and a court fee. …

Before Biggers accepted their pleas, Scruggs and Backstrom admitted in open court that they had done what the government said they had done in Count One – they had conspired to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City for a favorable order in a Katrina-related legal fees case….

Dickie Scruggs, arguably the most famous plaintiffs’ attorney in the U.S., looked pale and thin but carried himself with a bit more control than his younger colleague at The Scruggs Law Firm, headquartered on the storied Square in Oxford.

The 61-year-old Ole Miss Law School grad and legal giant-killer, as well as Backstrom, likely will voluntarily surrender their law licenses, as has co-defendant Timothy Balducci of New Albany, who pleaded guilty in December although he was wired and cooperating with the government at least a month earlier.

“Do you fully understand what is happening here today,” Biggers asked him.

“Yes, I do,” Scruggs responded.

Questioned about whether he had discussed his decision to plead guilty with his attorney, Scruggs responded, “With my attorney, my wife and my family.”

1:25 p.m.: Rossmiller has an update from a correspondent at the scene. And Folo is up at a temporary site until its server gets back online. Excerpts from Folo’s on-the-scene report:

…* Richard Scruggs is pleading to conspiracy to bribe a state court judge, count 1 of the indictment, with other counts to be dismissed. This was an open plea, that is, no recommended sentence.

* The government expects that he will get the full five year sentence on that count. …

* There was no mention of cooperation by Scruggs. …

* There was an interesting and unusual disagreement with the government’s statement of facts in the plea colloquy. The government stated in its facts for both Backstrom and Scruggs that a conspiracy began in March to corruptly influence the state court judge, and Scruggs spoke to say that he had agreed to earwig the judge but not corruptly influence him in March, and that he later agreed to join a conspiracy to corruptly influence the judge. Sid Backstrom took a similar stance….

[See also WSJ law blog and later NMC post, as well as WikiScruggs on "earwigging" as a Mississippi tradition.]

1:56: Welcome Glenn Reynolds/Instapundit and David Rossmiller/Insurance Coverage Blog readers.

3:18: The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports: “As part of the plea deal, federal prosecutors agreed to defer prosecution of Scruggs’ son, Zach Scruggs, who agreed to give up his license to practice law.” [N.B.: NMC @ Folo has a very different take, and other sites are also questioning the C-L's reporting on this point.] Folo at its temporary bivouac has PDFs of the Scruggs and Backstrom pleas and underlying facts, as does David Rossmiller. ABA Journal coverage includes the text of a forthcoming article by Terry Carter on the affair, written pre-plea. Other reactions: Above the Law (“has Scruggs employed bribery as a tactic in other matters — e.g., the tobacco cases that made him famous …?”), Beck and Herrmann (“What a week. First Spitzer, and now Scruggs. What goes around, comes around.”), TalkLeft, Michelle Malkin, NAM Shop Floor (“So what are the odds that this was Dickie Scruggs’ first and only crime during his decades-long career as a trial lawyer?”).

6:27: Roger Parloff wonders whether Scruggs will cooperate, and whether the statute of limitations might have run already on tobacco skullduggery. NMC @ Folo wonders what prosecutors will make of a slew of fresh documents from the Scruggs Law Firm, or whether perhaps such documents have already had an effect. Not so surprising a plea, says Jane Genova at Law and More, but rather “widely expected“.

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Judge Biggers grants the prosecution’s unusual request, citing not only media coverage and its potential to subject jurors to “intimidation or harassment”, but also the “past attempts by the defendants to interfere with the judicial process”. (Patsy Brumfield, “Scruggs-Backstrom Case: Jurors will be nameless, for both sides”, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Mar. 6; Folo and more; Rossmiller; order in PDF format).

Some developments of the past ten days or so:

* In major blow to defense, Judge Biggers denies motions to suppress wiretap evidence and evidence of similar bad acts [Rossmiller]

* Balducci says he and Patterson got $500K from Scruggs to influence AG Hood to drop indictment of State Farm, motive being to advance civil settlement [Folo]

* WSJ gets into the act with some highlights of wiretap transcripts [edit page; earlier here]

* Sen. Trent Lott says he’s a witness, not a target, of federal investigation [Anita Lee, Biloxi Sun-Herald]

* Scruggs off the hook on Alabama criminal contempt charge [WSJ law blog, Rossmiller, Folo]

* “Mr. Blake has served for many years as a conduit and a layer of separation, if you will, between Mr. Scruggs and other people on sensitive issues.” (Balducci transcript highlights, Folo; more)

* In effort to get Zack Scruggs indictment dismissed, his lawyers dwell on switch from “y’all” to “you” as implying shift in persons addressed from plural to singular [Folo first, second; Rossmiller first, second; on a "sweet potatoes" point, NMC @ Folo and sequel; also]

* DeLaughter/Peters branch of scandal reaches deep into Jackson legal community [Adam Lynch, Jackson Free Press]

* Article in new American Lawyer notes that Scruggs’s ambitious suits have lately hit a big losing streak, notably those against HMOs, nonprofit hospitals and Lehman Brothers [Susan Beck]. And Lotus catches an interestingly lawyerly wording on John Keker’s part [Folo]

* I’m quoted and this site is discussed in an article on blog coverage of the case; my lack of clarity as an interviewee probably accounts for Scruggs being said to have addressed audiences at the Manhattan Institute “a few” times, when if memory serves the correct reference is “twice”. [Patsy Brumfield, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo) @ Folo]

* For more background see our Scandals page; also YallPolitics.

Alan Lange and commenters are jumping in to excerpt some of the more damning excerpts (YallPolitics Feb. 19; more). And in the department of curious wordings, from the Jackson Clarion Ledger: “Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter has told federal authorities he became aware in 2006 that some people were trying to improperly influence him to rule in favor of lawyer Dickie Scruggs in a Hinds County legal-fees dispute. DeLaughter told authorities he didn’t know whether he was influenced [emphasis added] but says he’s followed the law in all his rulings.” (Jerry Mitchell, “Judge: Efforts to sway made”, Feb. 24).

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Big news day in the Scruggs scandals: a judge has turned down defense motions to throw out the charges and to suppress the evidence, a hearing on those motions has showcased the testimony of government informant Tim Balducci, and the government in responding to the motions has released extensive and often quite damning transcripts of the wiretap conversations among the principals. Folo as usual provides the most in-depth coverage, with posts on the judge’s rulings here and here, on the hearing and Balducci’s testimony here and in numerous preceding posts, and on the wiretap transcripts here and in numerous preceding posts. David Rossmiller is on the judge’s ruling here, and on the hearing and transcripts here. More: Patsy Brumfield, NEMDJ, was at the courthouse.

Picking through the rich contents of the transcripts and Balducci’s testimony is going to keep Scruggsians busy for a good long time. In the meanwhile, some odds and ends:

* Want to review all the major events of the central alleged bribery case, skillfully narrated in chronological sequence? Of course you do. Folo’s NMC has it in six parts beginning here and ending here (follow links to find those in between).

* John Grisham’s “Too Dumb for Dickie” theory encounters some serious strain [Rossmiller and again]

* Mississippi legislature won’t give AG Jim Hood authority to wiretap his enemies suspected white-collar criminals. Gee, wonder why that might be? [WLBT via Lange] Plus: description of Hood as a Pez dispenser coughing out multi-million-dollar cases for his chums [Rossmiller]

* More unpretty details surface on Scruggs’s (and other lawyers) use of informants in Katrina litigation [Rossmiller] and tobacco [Lange]

* More Hood: prosecuting the accused judge-bribers “would be like prosecuting a relative” [Salter, Clarion-Ledger, Rossmiller, Folo]. Give back tainted money? “That’s up to DAGA [Democratic Attorneys General Association]” [Lange]

* Former Louisiana attorney general Richard Ieyoub gets a mention, as does Sen. Trent Lott [Folo, same] Update: feds investigating what Sen. Lott knew [WSJ]

* Small world, Mississippi: member of arbitration panel that awarded Scruggs huge fees was later hired by the tort potentate for legal work [Lange]

* Blogosphere has been a major source for breaking news on the scandal [LegalNewsLine]

* Liberal columnist Bill Minor recalls when a certain Sen. McCain let Dickie Scruggs and Mike Moore run their tobacco lobbying campaign out of his Hill office [NEMDJ via Folo; more at PBS "Frontline" and NY Times]

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The beleaguered tort tycoon is now seeking to have the federal indictment dismissed on grounds of “outrageous government misconduct”. Roger Parloff at Fortune Legal Pad explains how Scruggs’s attorneys are evoking the atmospherics of an entrapment defense without actually going quite so far as to assert that defense, which would mean (among other things) opening the door for prosecutors to introduce evidence of other similar but uncharged bad acts by Scruggs (Feb. 12). See also White Collar Crime Prof and NMC at Folo. And the Scruggs camp’s motions to suppress wiretap evidence has resulted in the release of a slew of transcripts of taped conversations among the principals, often sliced and excerpted in nonobvious ways, highlights of which appear at Folo here (“you need it pretty soon?”), here (Tim Balducci: “you always gotta have a slush fund” and “This ain’t my first rodeo with Scruggs”), here (P.L. Blake told by Patterson of “pretty good problem that I had solved”; see also Yall) and here (appearing to omit Balducci’s famous “bodies buried” line). For those sorting out Balducci’s colorful figures of speech relating to food, by the way, his reference to “bushels of sweet potatoes” that he needs to get “where I can get em . . . uh . . . over to him” is explained at the WSJ law blog here, while his expressed wish to “lay the corn on the ground” for Judge Lackey is here at Folo. More: Alan Lange, YallPolitics.

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In a motion to change venue, the famed tort lawyer’s defense attorneys complain about Mississippi-focused “web logs (blogs) that report, in excruciating detail, every event in the prosecution and defense of the Scruggs criminal case” and related proceedings (Folo, Feb. 12). Does this mean we nationally-focused blogs don’t count as excruciating?

P.S. Commenter “OBQuiet” adds, “Odd that his own frequent comments and leaks to the press didn’t deny his opponents a fair trial. How could that be?”

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David Rossmiller—indispensable for matters Scruggsian—has the details of a Judge Michael Mills’s displeasure with Dickie Scruggs’s refusal to submit to a deposition in State Farm’s lawsuit against state attorney general Jim Hood. Scruggs will likely plead the Fifth Amendment for his interactions with the attorney general—which does not reflect well on that attorney general.

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* Pertinacious Scruggs effort to evade deposition by State Farm attorneys results in “testosterone fiesta” of swaggering counsel (Folo; sequel; YallPolitics; Rossmiller); (P.S. Yes, Ted and I independently noticed and posted on this just minutes apart.)

* Remember when Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood declared his political patron Scruggs a “confidential informant”, thus throwing a most useful cloak of protection over him in his battle against contempt charges? It happens that Scruggs was at almost exactly the same moment donating large sums to the Democratic Attorneys General Association which seem to have passed through like a dose of salts to emerge at the other end as donations to Hood (YallPolitics; earlier on DAGA)

* Attorney Ed Peters, tagged with a pivotal role in Langston-DeLaughter branch of scandal, was formerly high-profile local D.A.; his prosecutorial vendetta against an attorney named J. Keith Shelton comes in for scrutiny in a new series by Folo proprietor Lotus [#5 in series; posts tagged Peters; see also YallPolitics]

* Folo co-blogger NMC, looking into Luckey and Wilson fee disputes (earlier here, here, here), is rattled by the prevalence of hearings-without-notice, ex parte judicial contacts, and other Gothic proceduralisms [Folo];

* Implications or non-implications for civil proceedings of Scruggs’s taking the Fifth [White Collar Crime Prof Blog]

* Adam Cohen of the NYT and Scott Horton of Harper’s claim defendants in precursor Minor-Teel-Whitfield scandal were railroaded on vague charges over not-really-illegal stuff; read pp. 6-9 of the indictment and see whether you agree (YallPolitics);

* For Mississippi, it’s already the most far-reaching corruption scandal in a century, aside from the question of how much bigger it might get [Jackson Clarion-Ledger]

Earlier Scruggs coverage on our scandals page.

NY Times on Scruggs, again

by Walter Olson on January 21, 2008

Yesterday’s extensive New York Times piece by Nelson D. Schwartz, the lead story in the paper’s Sunday business section, once again (see Dec. 9) provides strong overall perspective on the scandal, along with tidbits that will be new to all but the most obsessed (or most locally knowledgeable) followers of the affair. It focuses in particular on ever-more-central scandal figure P.L. Blake, sometimes known as the $50 million man, of whom we learn:

In interviews, other Mississippi political figures suggest that Mr. Blake has played a key role for Mr. Scruggs over the years. “P. L. essentially has done all the back-room negotiating for Dickie, but you’ll never see his tracks,” says Pete Johnson, a former state auditor who is now co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, a federal agency with headquarters in Clarksdale, Miss. …“He was the nexus of his political network.”

Incidentally, and presumably unrelatedly, former Times insurance-beat reporter Joseph Treaster, whose profiles of Scruggs in years past I’ve had occasion to blast as epically credulous, is departing the paper to teach journalism at the University of Miami, per Romenesko.

Anita Lee of the Biloxi Sun-Herald is also out with another good background piece, including the results of inquiries into a topic of widespread interest, namely the circumstances under which Judge Bobby DeLaughter’s name was not put forward for a federal judgeship even though (according to prosecutors) such a prospect had been dangled by conspirators hoping to improperly influence his rulings on a key Scruggs fee case:

Sen. Thad Cochran’s office told the Sun Herald that DeLaughter’s name was one of those mentioned for the appointment, but would not say which candidates Lott and Cochran privately discussed to recommend to President Bush. The office said Cochran wants to respect the privacy of candidates for the position. … Government evidence indicates DeLaughter e-mailed at least one order to Peters so he could pass it along for pre-approval from Scruggs’ attorneys.

Investigators are presumably taking an interest in confirming the account of Sen. Lott, who is Scruggs’s brother-in-law, that he raised DeLaughter’s name only as a brief and passing “courtesy” as opposed to making a serious effort on the candidate’s behalf (more). And a commenter at Folo points to a passage deep in the now-fabled Luckey transcript which is highly suggestive as to the possible ways in which a large share of P.L. Blake’s millions in tobacco fees might not have remained for long in Mr. Blake’s possession (more).

Earlier coverage can be found on our scandals page.

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