By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Zach Scruggs’s 2008 conviction and prison sentence will stand, Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers said today.
However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be considered by a higher appeals court.
Scruggs, 37, of Oxford last summer asked the federal court based in Oxford to vacate his conviction and sentence. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to knowing about but failing to report a colleague’s illegal conversation with Circuit Judge Henry Lackey, who presided over a legal-fees lawsuit against Scruggs and others.
For his appeal, he cited new evidence and a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that he said proved his innocence.
Today, Biggers’ terse order said this:
“In accordance with the Memorandum Opinion issued this day, it is ORDERED AND ADJUDGED that the Petitioner’s Motion to Vacate Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 is hereby DENIED.”
The order is accompanied by a memorandum opinion with Biggers’ explanation for his ruling. (To read it, go to Patsy Brumfield’s blog From the Front Row on NEMS360.com)
Neither Scruggs nor any of his attorneys could be reached immediately for a reaction to Biggers’ ruling.
In November 2007, a federal grand jury indicted Scruggs, his famous attorney father Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, law partner Sidney Backstrom, New Albany attorney Timothy Balducci and his partner, former state auditor Steven Patterson on multiple counts alleging they conspired to bribe Lackey in exchange for sending to arbitration the legal-fees lawsuit, Jones v. Scruggs.
After a March 2007 meeting, the men agreed Balducci should use his friendship with Lackey to see how the judge might feel about an arbitration order.
Balducci visited the judge, they talked about the case and during the same conversation Balducci asked Lackey to become part of his new law practice, after the judge retired.
Days later, Lackey became nervous that Balducci and the Scruggses might be trying to bribe him and he alerted the FBI. He then agreed to record his contacts with Balducci
Five months later, Lackey asked Balducci for $40,000 and Balducci was arrested by the FBI on Nov. 1 just after he delivered the final payment to the judge.
Zach Scruggs contends he never knew anything about a bribe.
The other defendants worked out deals to plead guilty to just one count and went to prison. Only Dickie Scruggs remains behind bars with time added for a guilty plea in an alleged scheme to improperly influence another judge in another legal-fees case.
Last May, Biggers presided over three days of hearings on Zach Scruggs’ motion to vacate.
His legal team and prosecutors presented and cross-examined numerous witnesses, and later filed voluminous legal documents to sum up their positions to Biggers.
Either way Biggers’ decision went, the losing side is eligible to appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit.
Court observers speculate the case is likely to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court, for the same reason.
Biggers’ decision will be examined widely as one of the first using the 2010 decision on U.S. v. Skilling, in which the Supreme Court narrowed its definition of “honest services crimes” to just bribery or kickbacks. An “honest services crime” is one that denies the public of an official’s honest services and, prior to the new decision, often was used by prosecutors to add more weight to an indictment.
Few appeals have yet to be decided by the new ruling, although Dickie Scruggs recently appealed his second guilty plea, He insists that his improper influence toward Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter was unethical but not illegal as “political speech.” DeLaughter apparently never received any money in the case for which Scruggs offered to ask his brother-in-law, then-U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, to suggest the judge for a federal bench post.
DeLaughter went to jail after pleading guilty to lying about his conversations with his longtime friend, Ed Peters of Jackson, whom Scruggs hired to approach DeLaughter.
• Read Thursday’s Daily Journal or come back to NEMS360.com