OXFORD – Zach Scruggs’ attorneys are looking at Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision about “honest services” and how it could affect his future.
Scruggs, 36, was a young Oxford lawyer in November 2007 when he, his famous litigator father, Dickie Scruggs, and two others were indicted on federal charges that they conspired to bribe Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey of Calhoun City.
Despite repeated assertions of innocence, he pleaded guilty in March 2008 to a lesser charge – that he knew a crime was being committed but failed to report it.
His plea connects with the Supreme Court decision because, basically, he pleaded guilty to failure to report the loss of honest services.
Lackey accepted the alleged bribe as the FBI’s cooperating witness. The federal indictment claimed the conspiracy was aimed at securing Lackey’s favorable rulings in a legal-fees lawsuit against the senior Scruggs.
Zach Scruggs’ attorney, Edward D. “Chip” Robertson Jr. of Leawood, Kan., said their legal team plans to look more deeply at the Supreme Court decision and see where it may take them.
“The ruling looks like it may provide some interesting things that we might be able to use on Zach’s behalf,” Robertson said via telephone from Chicago on Thursday.
Also speaking from Chicago, Scruggs confirmed he was there to strategize about what the ruling could mean for him.
They declined to speculate if the new decision could be used to overturn his guilty plea.
For nearly 25 years, federal prosecutors pursued corruption cases with a broadly worded law interpreted to make it a crime to deprive the public of someone’s “honest services,” often an elected official.
Thursday, the Supreme Court decision in Skilling v. U.S. narrowed the honest-services statute to “bribery and kickback schemes,” although it did not go so far as to say the law is unconstitutionally broad.
How does that affect Zach Scruggs, who spent 14 months in federal custody and permanently lost his law license?
“The question is whether Zach’s guilty plea conceded that he had been part of a bribery scheme,” said a Mississippi attorney who closely follows Supreme Court opinions. He asked that his name not be used.
“There are good arguments both ways.
“On one hand, you could say that even though he didn’t exactly support his father’s scheme, he aided it by his silence. On the other hand, you could say that he didn’t plead guilty to helping or hurting his father’s plan, and that all he did was remain silent. As is often the case with the law, there’s no clear answer.”
As for Dickie Scruggs and the other co-defendants, initial analysis says the decision may not help them at all.
Acting U.S. Attorney William Martin in Oxford, whose office prosecuted the Scruggs cases while Jim Greenlee was in charge, referred questions about the ruling to Washington, D.C.
Tracy Schmaler, a spokeswoman at the Department of Justice, said that while DOJ was disappointed with the narrowed statute, its staff will study the opinion to determine what tools are left to “ferret out corruption.”
“The American people are entitled to the honest services of both public servants and corporate executives,” she said, “and the Department will continue to bring all appropriate cases in order to hold corrupt officials accountable for their actions.”
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal