OXFORD – Senior U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers must now decide if Zach Scruggs was part of a conspiracy to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey.
After 21⁄2 days of testimony, Scruggs’ legal team on Wednesday wrapped up a string of witnesses to bolster its request to throw out his conviction and sentence.
“We said Zach Scruggs didn’t commit bribery,” attorney Chris Robertson said as he summed it up before Biggers. “He didn’t know anything about any money.”
Lead prosecutor Chad Lamar said otherwise.
“The evidence presented today demonstrates that he knew or should have known and is legally responsible,” Lamar said.
Scruggs of Oxford was indicted in late 2007, along with his famous lawyer father, Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, partner Sid Backstrom, New Albany attorney Tim Balducci and his partner Steve Patterson, on six counts that they conspired to bribe Lackey and deprive Mississippi of his honest services.
The charges sprang from Balducci’s visit to the judge, his mentor, to ask for arbitration in a legal-fees lawsuit against the Scruggs Katrina Group.
Ultimately, the judge went undercover for the FBI and months later asked for $50,000 in exchange for the favor.
Balducci paid it, then was reimbursed by Dickie Scruggs for legal work preparing for a trial.
Everybody went to prison after they pleaded guilty for leniency deals. Dickie Scruggs is still serving his time.
Zach Scruggs was the last – repeatedly insisting he never knew anything about money to Lackey. But he pleaded to knowing and not reporting that Balducci talked illegally to the judge.
This week’s hearing and its testimony came down to this: Could a reasonable juror, after hearing all the evidence, acquit Zach Scruggs of the conspiracy?
Lamar said no. Scruggs’ team said yes.
But in 2008 it never came to that because the government broke them with the threat that Scruggs associate Joey Langston of Booneville was ready to say Zach knew all about a parallel bribery scheme involving Hinds Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
That representation to Biggers, if true, would have put Zach Scruggs in jeopardy for extensive prison time. He took the deal and a 14-month sentence.
It also cost him a $250,000 fine and permanent loss of his law license.
Wednesday, former prosecutor David Sanders – now a federal magistrate judge – said the government’s only evidence of bribery against Scruggs came from Tim Balducci, who said Scruggs knew.
Earlier in the week, Backstrom and Patterson under oath and a written statement from Dickie Scruggs insisted Zach knew nothing about the bribe.
Sanders also said a sworn statement by Langston revealed that he never would have said Zach knew anything about the DeLaughter scheme.
Scruggs attorney Mike Moore asked Sanders if the government ever cleared that up with Judge Biggers. No, Sanders answered.
Moore also asked if the government were concerned that for a time, Langston and Zach Scruggs were represented by the same attorney, Anthony Farese.
“The two cases were entirely separate,” Sanders said.
On Jan. 4, 2008, when the government confronted Langston with evidence against him in the DeLaughter bribery case, Moore continued, “Did you ask Joey Langston, ‘What involvement does Zach Scruggs have in the Wilson-DeLaughter matter?’”
Sanders said he didn’t recall asking that.
“Had you asked,” Moore added, “would we be here today with this problem?”
Biggers likely will have legal arguments from both sides and a government response within three weeks.
Because much of Scruggs’ case is based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Skilling decision, which sharply narrowed the honest services law to just bribery and kickbacks, few related conviction appeals have come up in district courts. Biggers’ decision will be precedent-setting.
Either way, the losing side can appeal to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and the case could eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal