By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Dick Scruggs awaits what he calls “the gun lap” – his final stint in federal prison.
Reviled by many as the kingpin of Mississippi’s most notorious legal scandal six years ago, he says he’s found a new life from the darkness of shame and drug abuse.
Sixty-six-year-old Scruggs spoke with the Daily Journal, his first news media interview since his November 2007 arrest on federal charges he conspired to bribe Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey of Calhoun City, who presided over a legal-fees lawsuit against Scruggs and others.
Seated on the rear patio of his beautifully appointed Oxford home, he seemed comfortable talking about his life since his two bribery convictions, although he said he “wasn’t ready yet” to go over their details.
The cases gained international headlines because of Scruggs’ role as lead attorney in gaining huge financial settlements from tobacco and asbestos companies, which Scruggs and associates sued on behalf of injured clients. A movie, “The Insider,” was made about the whistleblower in the tobacco case.
Scruggs remains free on a $2 million bond until Monday, when he voluntarily re-enters Federal Camp Montgomery in Alabama to complete his sentence handed down for his 2009 guilty plea in a scheme to bribe then-Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who presided over another lawsuit against Scruggs and others.
Bail was granted in late 2012 while his DeLaughter conviction appeal went to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. It was rejected recently, but he says he will continue until he runs out of options. His Lackey case sentence ended in late fall without appeal.
The University of Mississippi graduate and former Navy pilot, disbarred for his convictions, talked with the Daily Journal about a wide range of subjects:
• What federal prison is like.
• What he “craved” during his first five years of incarceration.
• His reaction to Oxford journalist Curtis Wilkie’s book about his life and fall from grace.
• His fears about coming home.
• His greatest regret.
• What he plans to do when he’s finally released in spring 2014.
Love him or hate him, Dick Scruggs has a charming, breezy social personality that draws you in to listen to what he has to say.
His days are done as one of the country’s aggressive plaintiffs’ attorneys – derisively called “trial lawyers,” whose generic reputations continue to suffer because of the bribery scandals.
These days, with light finally in the tunnel, he speaks optimistically about going back to prison and how his life has changed since he fell from the top of the heap.
He jokes about the characters he’s met in federal custody and how their friendships helped him through what he terms difficult, early years adjusting to life as an inmate after a world of privilege from jet planes, island retreats and elite company to his sumptuous home nestled in fabled Faulkner Woods behind the Nobel laureate’s home, now a museum.
The former Ole Miss Sigma Alpha Epsilon, who chose “Zeus” as his nickname, heaps his most ardent praise upon his wife, Diane, who he says held their world together through it all, despite her own physical and emotional trials.
“Diane has been the stalwart of this family,” he said just out of her earshot, although he told her later what he’d said.
Scruggs sounds a bit amazed that after his wife reached some equilibrium with a serious health problem, “that lady went out and held her head high… she stayed involved, made new friends and she showed no bitterness toward anybody” after his arrest, indictments and convictions.
Not that he was surprised, he said, “but she’d never been tested like that before.”
“All this agony of her husband and son going to prison – it was brutal.”
Their son, Zach, pleaded guilty to knowing about but not reporting a felony in the Lackey affair, although he maintains he never knew anything about the bribery scheme. He spent 14 months in prison, was disbarred and missed the birth of one of his children.
As 2013 began, 38-year-old Zach and his family moved from Oxford to Florida, where he works in the solar power industry.
Asked about his deepest regret, Dick Scruggs was quick to say, “… not seeing this coming, and having my son caught in it when he wasn’t” part of the Lackey scheme.
• • •
About 8 a.m. Dec. 12, 2012, Diane Scruggs retrieved her husband from Federal Camp Montgomery to bring him home on his federal bail.
“I’d been craving an Egg McMuffin for five years,” he admits. “We went to McDonald’s and I ate two.”
He also admits he gained 20 pounds on prison food across the four-plus years and felt the obvious restrictions of his old clothes as he changed in the restroom.
Prison food? “It’s about like bad school cafeteria food,” he explains.
He recalls his first day, when the formerly confident former lawyer joined the prison population in the main federal facility in Ashland, Ky.
“I was terrified,” he says, especially since he thought he’d be assigned to the low-security “camp” with its dormitory style living, only to be told he was headed for “The Big House” across the way. He also was told it would be his home for 18 months and, later, he figured out that authorities deemed him a flight risk because of his financial resources and a home outside the U.S.
Scruggs laughed when he recalled Ashland’s cafeteria, where he ate his first prison meal. “Remember the famous Cantina scene in the movie ‘Star Wars’?” he says, comparing it to Ashland. “Those were some tough-looking guys – tats, ponytails, eyes missing.”
Curiously, Scruggs said that because he was a neatly dressed, older white guy, his fellow inmates assumed he was a child molester, hardly a favored status in any jail situation.
Three days later, he was asked if he’d been jailed for a sex crime. When he said no, he was asked to prove it because sex offenders weren’t allowed into the TV room.
A curious inmate came back to him a few days later to report that the prison’s top inmate, a well-read man, learned about Scruggs’ Ashland destination in the Wall Street Journal and informed everybody else that he was “good.”
Scruggs said his roommate, serving a 26-year term for drugs, told him he was glad to know Scruggs was a “legitimate criminal.”
He spent much of his sentence in Ashland, but when his presence was required in Mississippi for court hearings, he experienced the prison system’s transit process on buses and planes through Oklahoma City and Atlanta.
While he said Oklahoma City’s prison wasn’t too bad, the worst was Atlanta – notoriously where Chicago mobster Al Capone spent some time.
Atlanta was “a hell hole” of filth, noise and 23-hour-per-day lockup where only the orderlies had any freedom because they were responsible for food delivery and cleanup, such as it was, Scruggs says.
After a week in solitary, Scruggs said he used postage stamps – prison currency – to bribe his way out to be an orderly.
“I was in there for bribery. I might as well bribe somebody,” he joked, slightly wrinkling the facial scars mending from recent skin-lesion surgeries.
Rats and roaches were everywhere, he says about the Atlanta “nightmare” where sensory deprivation was the rule. He learned to calculate time by watching the Atlanta airport flight path and one specific plane that flew in daily about 4 p.m., he estimated. An hour later, they’d go to supper.
In Atlanta headed for Ashland, his cellmate was a pimp, who Scruggs said told some very funny stories.
Humor gets you through a lot, he assessed.
When they returned to Ashland, for five days they were quarantined for bird flu in a facility called “The Hole,” in the movies a hellish place usually for disciplinary problems.
After that dark confinement, getting a shower and walking into the sunshine in the prison yard, Scruggs said, “I could not have been happier. On a scale of 10, it was a 10.”
He also was back to a routine and inmates he knew.
During this time, the Bureau of Prisons rejected his request to transfer to a prison camp at Forrest City, Ark., but days later he learned the Ashland warden was displeased with the decision and didn’t need BOP approval to move him to the Ashland camp.
It was July 2009, 11 months after he’d entered the system.
• • •
Ashland camp was the opposite of “The Hole” in Atlanta. It was clean and freedom, while relative, was the norm. Inmates could walk around inside the camp and live with some privacy in a large dormitory with two-man cubicles.
Scruggs’ first job was in the prison’s small law library doing what’s called “jailhouse lawyer” work on inmates’ appeals.
He speaks fondly and with some pride that he helped three fellow inmates get their convictions overturned. “I felt good about that,” he says, noting he began to learn criminal law, which was new for a man who’d spent most of his legal career in civil litigation.
Inmates undertake their own legal appeals as a way to pass the time, but also “to keep their hope up,” Scruggs says.
“I felt that myself,” he remembers.
Then he got permission to teach, first the history of the American wars. He says he learned a lot doing that.
As some teaching prisoners leave the system, openings occur in the teacher corps for the G.E.D., the high school graduation equivalency test. Scruggs got involved by teaching basic math up through high school geometry.
Through it all, Diane Scruggs visited him every weekend. Dick Scruggs expressed appreciation to his former colleague and Jackson attorney, David Nutt, who sent his plane to ferry her across those three years.
By this time, former Booneville attorney Joey Langston was released from the Montgomery facility, where he’d served his three-year sentence in the DeLaughter case.
Scruggs says he’d asked to transfer to Montgomery, but it hadn’t been possible until Langston was free. A month later, he began the transit to Alabama, a facility he terms “the nicest of all.”
Possibly because it’s on the Maxwell Air Force Base, Scruggs speculates that military customs influence its operation – clean, organized, well-managed and well-run.
At Montgomery, Scruggs began to tutor other inmates and by June 2011 earned his way into a G.E.D. teaching slot.
He also says he read a lot, and every night back in his cell, he’d make himself a cup of coffee – Taster’s Choice Instant – put it under his bunk, then wake at 4 a.m., drink the coffee and listen to National Public Radio. Up by 5:30, he’d shower, eat breakfast and go to work.
• • •
That early morning coffee was about as chemically stimulating as it got, Scruggs recalls, making reference to a long-time love affair with a painkiller taken for back troubles years ago. When Scruggs was sentenced to prison in mid-2008, Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. added a stipulation that he be assigned to a facility with a drug treatment program.
Throughout Scruggs’ prosecution, it was obvious to anyone who stared that he had a detached expression, and now, Scruggs admits the barbituate gets the blame.
He terms his two-month withdrawal from the drug “terrible,” but said one day he realized that he finally felt good.
“I’m never again doing that,” he adds. “I feel very different now.”
• • •
Perhaps one of his lowest emotional points came after Oxford journalist and Scruggs friend Curtis Wilkie penned “The Fall of the House of Zeus” about Scruggs’ life and fall from grace.
“Every embarrassing detail of my life was out there,” he recalls. “I was devastated – devastated – by the book. I don’t know what I expected, but I was crushed.”
Its content, in hindsight, he terms “a vicious truth,” to quote a well respected, long ago Southern judge.
He says he couldn’t read much of the book at one sitting because it was so personally upsetting.
Then, one morning, something changed.
“I said to myself, ‘This is kind of liberating. Anybody who deals with me from here on out must be OK.’
“I had nothing to hide. My life was stripped bare.”
He says he began to look at the book anew, that although Wilkie figuratively had taken a wire brush to everyone in the story, “I was still standing.”
The words of Rhett Butler, the manly protagonist in “Gone With the Wind,” come to him now, recalling the former Yankee privateer’s lack of concern about what others thought of him “because he had no reputation to lose.”
“I felt very much the same way,” Scruggs says. “I still care what other people think, but I didn’t lost my money or my wife. I was OK.”
• • •
Still, coming home with Diane on Dec. 12, 2012, the once bigger-than-life litigator and philanthropist wondered how his Oxford home-folks and others would react.
“You would have thought I was an astronaut coming back from the moon,” Scruggs remembers of the joyous homecoming.
His impending prison re-entry has put a small crimp on some big plans, but they’re proceeding regardless.
After his prison GED experience, Scruggs says he realized on a personal level how the lack of a high school diploma held so many people back. When he came to know that the GED. program will change drastically in 2014, he knew it was important for Mississippians who have completed large parts of the program to complete it by year’s end.
He’s working with the Mississippi Board of Community and Junior Colleges’ Adult Education Division to identify 1,000 people who need the $70 fee to take the test. He and friends will raise the money to fund it.
“Then, when I get out, I will get back into this in a bigger way,” he says about helping many more people earn their high school diplomas.
That achievement, he insists, can inspire people, who years ago dropped out, to realize how important their education is to securing good jobs.
“It signifies that you are determined enough to raise yourself up,” he says of the attainment. “And it’s certainly not as expensive as sending somebody back to high school.
“This will be my calling.”
And so on Monday, Richard F. “Dick” Scruggs will head back to Federal Camp Montgomery to resume teaching with a renewed spirit despite the 5th Circuit’s initial rejection of his appeal.
His five months of freedom, he says, have been “very moving and inspiring.”
“Now, it’s time for me to get back there for the gun lap and get it over.”