By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott insisted he never gave then-Judge Bobby DeLaughter any illusions he’d be suggested for a federal judgeship.
Lott testified Monday in U.S. District Court as his brother-in-law, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, seeks to convince the court he did not improperly influence DeLaughter to rule in his favor in a legal-fees lawsuit.
Attorneys for Scruggs, 65, aim to show Senior Judge Glen H. Davidson that he is innocent of the charge he pleaded guilty to in 2009.
Including noted constitutional law expert Samuel Issacharoff, his defense team insists that a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling threw out virtually all of what’s called “honest services” charges, which make it a crime to deprive taxpayers of a public official’s honest services.
The high court narrowed the crimes to just bribery and kickbacks, and in the DeLaughter matter Scruggs says it was only “political speech.”
“At the end of the day, the evidence will show there was no bribe,” said defense attorney Edward “Chip” Robertson Jr.
Prosecutor Robert Norman claimed the scheme began in mid-2005 after Scruggs lost a $17 million judgment and raged about preventing another such outcome. He said Scruggs sought to take advantage of DeLaughter’s judicial ambitions, and with the senator’s phone call, “the fix was in and DeLaughter sold his soul.”
Norman also claimed then-Booneville attorney, Joey Langston, who headed up Scruggs’ lawsuit team, told a federal grand jury “it was important” that DeLaughter believed they were trying to help him become a federal judge.
Lott scoffed at the government’s suggestion that Scruggs was a “gatekeeper” for judicial appointments.
“That’s absolutely untrue,” said the former Senate majority leader.
Of Scruggs, Lott said “he was not somebody I consulted” because they held different viewpoints about appointments. Lott said most of the Mississippi judicial appointments during this time were attorneys he or Sen. Thad Cochran had had on their short lists for a long time.
He recalled a conversation with Scruggs about DeLaughter’s interest in a judgeship and agreed to make a courtesy call, which he did later that day in late March 2006.
Steve Patterson of New Albany, a former state auditor, told the crowded courtroom that he thought it was “insane,” when he heard Scruggs agreed to telephone Lott to contact DeLaughter about the judgeship selection process.
“Why buy the cow when the milk’s free,” Patterson said, when asked why he reacted so negatively about Scruggs’ call. “The cow,” he said was DeLaughter, and “the milk” was his rulings in the lawsuit, Wilson v. Scruggs.
Patterson said that with the help of DeLaughter mentor Ed Peters, Scruggs’ legal team was getting what it sought – inside advice about how the lawsuit was progressing.
Peters, who was subpoenaed to testify, did not because attorneys acknowledged he is so deaf that any attempt to question him in a courtroom would prove problematic for both sides. Both sides agreed to use Peters’ FBI interviews and grand jury testimony as evidence to Davidson.
Patterson said it was Peters’ idea to seek Scruggs’ help through Lott for a federal bench nomination.
“It was no secret that Bobby DeLaughter wanted to be a federal judge – everybody who knew him knew that,” he said.
Patterson said both he and Langston told Peters that the judgeship help had nothing to do with the case.
“Ed knew it,” Patterson noted.
He said from the beginning of Peters’ association with them on the Wilson case, the former Hinds County district attorney insisted that his former protege, DeLaughter, “would follow the law” wherever it took the lawsuit.
Patterson said he was aware of Lott’s phone call to DeLaughter, but said he never considered it one deed for another, “quid pro quo.”
“I thought it was a pretty stupid thing to do,” he said. “I thought it would spook the judge, that it wasn’t needed.”
Patterson said he believes DeLaughter’s rulings, that generally were to the Scruggs side’s liking, were not because of Peters’ pressure.
“I think he was following the law, but Ed’s relationship didn’t hurt,” he added.
He also debunked testimony by his former business associate, Timothy Balducci, that a “clear plan” was agreed between Langston, Patterson and Scruggs to connect the rulings with the judgeship.
“I never heard that,” Patterson said.
Hugh Gamble, a former Lott staffer, testified after the lunch break that he sat in on Lott’s phone call to DeLaughter and never heard the senator give the circuit judge any encouragement about consideration.
“It was very much a superficial conversation,” Gamble said of the four- to five-minute chat. Afterward, he said Lott told him it was a courtesy call that “no further action” is necessary about it.
Monday’s hearing ended abruptly about 2:45 p.m. when defense testimony generally went unchallenged by prosecutors.
The hearing resumes this morning with Langston on the stand.