By PATSY BRUMFIELD / NEMS Daily Journal
Richard “Dickie” Scruggs liked his friends close and his enemies closer.
His wife, Diane, lived in dread that they would be his undoing. She was right.
In a much-anticipated book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus,” Oxford journalist Curtis Wilkie skillfully walks through the life of his friend Dickie Scruggs, now disgraced but at one time one of America’s most famous litigators.
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Wilkie’s work is set for release Oct. 19, fittingly at Square Books in Oxford, where The Scruggs Law Firm loomed large just across the fabled Square.
For the people and media who followed the 2007-2008 prosecutions of Scruggs, his son Zach, law partner Sidney Backstrom and Timothy Balducci and Steven Patterson of New Albany, the 385-page book contains few surprises.
They still go to jail, even though critics felt sure Wilkie would find a way to exonerate them before it was all over.
The five were indicted Nov. 27, 2007, accused of conspiring to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City for his favorable decision in a legal-fees lawsuit over Hurricane Katrina insurance cases.
Prosecutors snared Balducci first, soon after he delivered the last of $40,000 to the judge, who was working undercover for the feds.
Ultimately, they pressured everybody into guilty pleas to varying degrees of involvement, although Zach Scruggs now insists he is innocent and wants his sentence thrown out.
Wilkie is not shy about admitting that some of them are his friends or at least close acquaintances. Few Southern political reporters worth their stripes could go very long without knowing any of them, especially when you’re part of the University of Mississippi and live in Oxford, as Wilkie is and does.
In “Zeus” – which is Dickie Scruggs’ college fraternity nickname – Wilkie weaves this near-Greek tragedy from start to finish in an accurate, sophisticated way.
It will be hard for many readers to comprehend the staggering wealth of many of its characters, how their greed for more fueled their passion and how profligately their treasure was spent on the world and side deals with each other.
Even for the story’s followers, Wilkie scatters little newsy nuggets of surprise.
Few of the chief actors in this book come out looking very well.
They range from aggressively calculating or naively stupid to ruthless power-lovers.
Its main character, Dickie Scruggs, rises from the world of poor boy from a broken home to the pinnacle of his profession and its riches. But along the way, he acquires or befriends associates who help pave his road to ruination.
Mississippi’s figuratively incestuous and close-knit political, legal and social circles, especially the old network of the late longtime Sen. Jim Eastland and the University of Mississippi’s Sigma Nu fraternity, prove to be breeding grounds for his troubles.
Wilkie calls this “the dark side of the Force,” using the “Star Wars” allusion to evil.
His story is particularly tough on Oxford plaintiffs lawyer Grady Tollison, portrayed as jealous of Scruggs, who horns in on Tollison’s perceived primacy on the Square.
And on Lackey, who delights in the federal yoke when he’s doing the FBI’s bidding to snare Scruggs, but turns eccentric and bitter as the story winds down, despite the accolades that come his way for his role.
Diane Scruggs, perhaps the story’s only heroic figure, is its most prescient about human behavior. Like Cassandra of Greek tragedy, she sees through the crass characters her husband affiliates with, but her warnings are ignored.
It’s reminiscent of the old Johnny Rivers song about a woman who finds a frozen snake and brings it into her house to warm. She is surprised when it revives and fatally bites her.
“You knew darn well I was a snake before you brought me in,” one of its closing lines goes.
Throughout “Zeus,” Scruggs admits he’s chosen some shady men to work and play with. They certainly help him light his own funeral pyre.
Clearly, Wilkie put in the time and research to write a book that needed to be written.
And he weaves a thorough web for this scandal that rocked the legal world.
He’s also left the door open for more in-depth work on the cast, if anyone else is ready to lift the curtain.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or email@example.com.