JACKSON – Journalist Curtis Wilkie in his “The Fall of the House of Zeus” relates in meticulous, gripping detail the story of the spectacular downfall of wealthy trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs. Publication date is Oct. 19.
Importantly, Wilkie also sheds new light on two sleazy political characters who milked millions of dollars from Scruggs’ legal entanglements. Somehow, while Scruggs and five associates are sent off to prison for a crudely handled attempt to bribe a state judge, the two skated past being prosecuted.
Federal attorneys left unscathed shadowy “Mr. Fixer” P. L. Blake, of Greenwood, a onetime Mississippi State football star turned Delta farmer, and Ed Peters, the longtime former Hinds County District Attorney. Both, as Wilkie points out, have tentacles reaching back to the powerful political network of the late Sen. Jim Eastland.
Blake and Peters, as “House of Zeus” makes clear, were deeply enmeshed in the wide-ranging Scruggs empire. Wilkie recounts one of the rare times Blake testified under oath (in a peripheral federal civil lawsuit against Scruggs). Blake testified Scruggs paid him the outrageous sum of $2 million a month for “clipping newspapers.” Over time, going back to the 1980s, Scruggs is shown to have paid Blake, who once described himself as a “plunger and promoter,” some $50 million.
Peters comes into the Scruggs orbit this way: He used his close friendship with state Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, his former assistant DA, who was made famous in 1994 for convicting Byron De La Beckwith of the 1964 assassination of civil rights icon Medgar Evers. DeLaughter was assigned the task of deciding if Scruggs must pay a $17 million legal fee to a former associate in a years-old asbestos case.
Scruggs amassed his multimillion dollar empire by becoming a master at class action lawsuits against big corporate adversaries and assembling a legal team to do practically all the courtroom work while he devised overall strategies aimed at forcing a settlement. His first big coup came in the 1980s by representing hundreds of shipyard workers who contracted asbestosis at Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding. Then, in the 1990s, he became nationally recognized as “King of Torts” and subject of a movie. Acting as special counsel for state Attorney General Mike Moore, Scruggs forced previously impenetrable Big Tobacco into a multi-billion dollar settlement on grounds their product had cost states millions in Medicaid health care payments.
The tobacco giants agreed to pay Mississippi $4.4 billion over 25 years and make separate fee settlements with Scruggs’ legal group. They had put up at least $30,000 each to fund the litigation. Of note, Scruggs, used P. L. Blake as emissary to reach Republican State Treasurer Pete Johnson, who persuaded then-state Sen. Roger Wicker (now U.S. senator) to slip 73 words into a Medicaid bill spelling out authority for the state to employ outside counsel on a contingency basis.
Wilkie writes that Scruggs’ scheme to use Peters to make contact with DeLaughter on the $17 million fee case came from ex-State Auditor Steve Patterson, another slippery figure who was a political ally of Peters. Peters asked for $50,000 paid in cash up front. When DeLaughter ruled in Scruggs’ favor and notified Peters in advance, Scruggs, as the government says in its case, paid out $3 million to be divided equally three ways, among Peters, Patterson and Booneville attorney Joey Langston (later to become Scruggs’ attorney) dividing the pot. After some wrangling, Peters wound up with $950,000, which with his advance, made $1 million. DeLaughter, all sides concede, received none of the money.
But De Laughter resigned his judgeship, and pleaded guilty to one of five charges – lying to an FBI agent who questioned him about his contacts with Peters. Peters, according to Wilkie’s account, told Patterson and Langston he would “cut my throat” for them in promising his help for Scruggs’ later attempted judge-bribing case.
Showing his venality, Peters immediately started meeting with federal prosecutors to cut a deal in case he was to be prosecuted. The feds agreed that Peters would lose his law license and give back $450,000. End of story for Peters.
Meantime, Dick Scruggs received a five year sentence after pleading guilty to conspiracy to bribe state Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Lafayette County in another fee-splitting case brought by Jackson attorney Johnny Jones, one of the team who won a Katrina lawsuit brought by Scruggs against State Farm Insurance. The feds hauled Scruggs back from prison to testify before a grand jury, hoping to bring down P.L. Blake. Zero happened.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.