OXFORD – Former Booneville attorney Joey Langston said he never told prosecutors that Zach Scruggs knew anything criminal about a scheme to bribe HInds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
Langston, recently home from a prison sentence associated with that scheme, was called to testify today during a hearing to determine if federal prosecutor Robert Norman should be disqualified from the government’s legal team when Scruggs presses May 23 to throw out his 2008 conviction and sentence in another case.
“I took great pains to exonerate him – that he knew nothing about any criminality,” Langston said about what he told investigators when questioned about Scruggs.
At issue was whether Norman falsely told the court Langston would say otherwise and whether the government corrected the record, once it came to light.
Langston said the miscommunication undoubtedly occurred just before a February 2008 hearing, when Norman asked him, “Did Zach know?”
Langston said he thought Norman was asking about whether Scruggs knew that DeLaughter friend Ed Peters had been hired by Langston and Richard “Dickie” Scruggs in the legal-fees lawsuit, Wilson v. Scruggs.
“I answered yes,” Langston said.
Norman later told Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers and others in the courtroom that Langston would testify that Zach Scruggs was “fully aware” of the Wilson case.
“That’s not what I intended to communicate to him,” Langston said.
After hours of legal arguments and testimony, Biggers said he will rule on the Norman disqualification issue in 48 hours.
Zach Scruggs, 36 of Oxford, pleaded guilty in 2008 to knowing about but not reporting that an acquaintance, Timothy Balducci of New Albany, had an illegal conversation with Circuit Judge Henry Lackey about sending another legal-fees lawsuit against Scruggs and others to arbitration.
Biggers sentenced him to 14 months in prison and fined him $250,000.
Balducci and former state auditor Steve Patterson were involved with Langston in the Wilson case, although Langston was not involved with them in the Lackey case. Balducci and Patterson also went to jail for their guilty pleas for the Lackey case.
Also taking the stand during the afternoon were former U.S. prosecutor Thomas Dawson and Ashland attorney Anthony Farese.
Dawson testified about his recollections about the Lackey and Wilson prosecutions, especially as they related to Zach Scruggs.
Farese, who once represented Zach Scruggs and then Joey Langston, testified about telling Norman that the prosecutor misspoke to the court about Zach Scruggs’ knowledge of the DeLaughter scheme.
A May 23 hearing before Biggers will examine the issues surrounding Scruggs’ motion to convince the court to throw out his conviction and sentence. He contends a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case and new evidence prove he is innocent.
Monday morning, both sides’ attorneys argued at the hearing’s central questions: Did Norman mislead the court about what Zach Scruggs knew about a scheme to bribe then-Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter and did Norman allow Balducci to give false testimony to the grand jury, which indicted Scruggs, his famous father and three others including Balducci?
Scruggs attorney Charles Robertson argued that Norman knew Balducci was lying when he told the grand jury that Zach Scruggs sanctioned a $10,000 payment to Lackey for the decision and that he lied to the court when he told Biggers and others that Langston would testify that Zach Scruggs knew about the DeLaughter scheme.
DeLaughter maintains he never was bribed, although he spent 18 months in a federal prison after a guilty plea to lying to FBI agents as they investigated the allegations.
Speaking to Biggers in his own defense, Norman said he believed he clarified Balducci’s grand jury testimony to focus on Zach Scruggs and co-defendant Sid Backstrom, and that he corrected his misrepresentation about Langston, who in a shown affidavit years later insisted Zach Scruggs knew nothing about the DeLaughter scheme.
When Biggers sentenced Scruggs, he believed what prosecutors told him about the two cases.
At that stage, Norman said he had Langston, Dawson and Farese available to testify, if Biggers wanted them.
He also agreed “there may be circumstances” in which he might have to testify.
In seeking his disqualification, Scruggs’ lawyers initially argued that because Norman was likely to be a hearing witness, he should be disqualified from the government’s team.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office, however, said Norman was vital to its involvement because he was the last of the original prosecutors still on staff, and that they needed his help.
Robertson told Biggers it seemed problematic that Norman would “be an objective witness.” Late last week, the Scruggs team said it didn’t necessarily plan to call him to testify.
Scruggs contends that he was fearful of much harsher punishment, if Langston should testify at trial that he knew about the DeLaughter case, and so he took the plea deal to avoid the jeopardy.
His team claims it did not know until much later about these details and could not have defended him in court without them.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal