Book: Scruggs planned for ambassadorship

Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs was convinced he could be the next U.S. ambassador to Ecuador after George W. Bush’s presidential win in 2000.
He’d played his cards right politically, made substantial donations to Republican candidates and supported Bush’s campaign.
After all, his brother-in-law, Sen. Trent Lott, was the powerful majority leader and called a lot of shots in Washington.
Scruggs considered it such a done deal that he began to take Spanish lessons and bought a jet with capacity to fly from the Gulf Coast to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, without refueling.
But during the 2002 Christmas season, Lott made some politically intemperate remarks at a 100th birthday party for segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
In the ensuing firestorm of criticism, Lott gave up his majority leader post and South America was no long an option for Scruggs.
That’s one of many stories Oxford journalist Curtis Wilkie recounts in his much-anticipated book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” set for distribution Oct. 19. Crown Publishing Group provided a review copy to the Daily Journal this week.
“Zeus” is the nickname given Scruggs by some of his 1960s college fraternity brothers.
In late 2007, Scruggs’ idyllic life in Oxford and his soaring legal career came crashing down under a federal indictment that he, his son Zach, their law partner Sidney Backstrom, and New Albanyites Timothy Balducci and Steven Patterson conspired to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey for a favorable ruling in a Katrina-related lawsuit over legal fees.
Under pressure, they all pleaded guilty to varying degrees of involvement and were sentenced to prison.
Zach Scruggs, who served his 14 months, insists that a recent Supreme Court decision narrowed the law he was charged under only to bribery or kickbacks. He says that’s not what he pleaded to – knowing Balducci planned an illegal conversation with the judge – and he wants his conviction thrown out.
Wilkie’s 385-page book details the lives of Scruggs, his family and sometimes unsavory associates – from their beginnings to early 2010. It also puts Lott’s replacement, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo, in a pivotal maneuver for private lawyers to get future contingency fees when they represent the state.
Scruggs needed the approval in his 1994 plans to use Mississippi’s Medicaid program to sue Big Tobacco for medical bills of heavy smokers.
Wilkie writes that at the behest of former state auditor Pete Johnson, hired by Scruggs, Wicker “slipped 73 words into the Medicaid bill” while it was in a six-legislator conference committee, and the measure passed with little notice.
While the story about the maneuver is known by some longtime reporters at the state Capitol, Wicker’s involvement isn’t common knowledge.
A response to the story was not available from Wicker’s Washington, D.C., office Thursday.
The attorneys-fees controversy bubbles up periodically, most recently with Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, who has been critical of $14 million in legal fees worked out in 2005 with MCI/WorldCom by then-Booneville attorney Joey Langston’s firm and others to recover $100 million in unpaid taxes for state.
Wilkie also tells readers other details generally not known to the public:
• Scruggs became addicted to painkillers after two back surgeries in 2000. Wilkie says people close to Scruggs saw the negative effects on him and his judgment. When Scruggs was sentenced to prison in 2008, the judge told him he would go where they had treatment services, although few in the courtroom audience understood the reason.
• Before they got into trouble, Balducci and Patterson were close to launching what they considered a mega-firm named Patterson, Balducci and Biden Law Group. The Biden was Sarah, wife of now Vice President Joe Biden’s brother, Jim, whom Patterson had known for years of working politics with the family.
• Langston, then one of the state’s top trial lawyers, bragged about being able to weep publicly when he needed to by thinking of sad moments in his life. Langston, who pleaded guilty to a second judicial bribery plot in 2008, wept openly at his plea hearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills. Despite his cooperation with prosecutors, Langston was sentenced to three years in prison by Mills.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@djournal.com.

(For more about “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” read a review in Sunday’s Daily Journal)

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal