Scruggs hearing: Balducci first of key witnesses

OXFORD – Zach Scruggs’ trial that never happened began Monday as a hearing he hopes will prove him innocent of a 2008 guilty plea.
Scruggs, 37 of Oxford, last fall asked Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers to set the hearing to allow new evidence and a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision to back up his claim that he should not have been convicted of knowing about but not reporting that a colleague illegally spoke to a judge about a legal-fees lawsuit against the Scruggs Katrina Group.
Timothy Balducci, the government’s key witness against Scruggs and four others originally accused of a scheme to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City, spent all day on the witness stand.
Scruggs’ and government attorneys walked the former New Albany attorney through a series of events that led up to the indictments that shook the Mississippi legal community. He’ll resume testimony today.
Monday, court observers said the hearing could last all week, maybe longer.
Balducci wept as he listened apparently for the first time to a taped recording of Lackey, his mentor, telling him how he thought Balducci was special and that he needed $40,000 to help him “get over a hump” in exchange for signing an order that would send the Scruggs lawsuit to arbitration.
The judge was acting as a government informant after he became alarmed about a March 2007 conversation with Balducci, who asked his longtime friend to do him a favor with the lawsuit.
Monday, the Oxford courtroom was filled with Scruggs family and friends, as well as the curious.
Among possible witnesses to be called for questioning are Lackey, former Scruggs partner Sid Backstrom, former Balducci partner Steve Patterson, former prosecutors Tom Dawson and David Sanders, Ashland attorney Tony Farese, former Booneville attorney Joey Langston, Scruggs fix-it man P.L. Blake, linguistic expert Dr. Robert Leonard and even Zach Scruggs.
In November 2007, the Scruggses, Backstrom, Balducci and Patterson were indicted in the Lackey scheme. None ever went to trial, cutting short that part of the process with guilty-plea deals to avoid lengthy imprisonments. All completed prison stints, except Dickie Scruggs.
Monday was Balducci’s first public appearance since a spring 2008 hearing on the case before Biggers.
This time, he insisted Zach Scruggs knew they paid Lackey for the arbitration order. He also insisted Zach Scruggs was in a crucial, recorded Nov. 1, 2007, meeting with him and Backstrom in which the bribe money and the corrupt arbitration order were discussed.
Scruggs insists he did not know about the bribery.
What Backstrom will say about that appears key, but he’s known to have told FBI investigators in spring 2008 that the younger Scruggs did not know about the bribery scheme. Prosecutors may introduce polygraph information to try to refute his testimony.
Monday, Scruggs attorney Edward “Chip” Robertson repeatedly questioned Balducci about differences in FBI tape transcripts of telephone conversations and what Balducci told a federal grand jury, which indicted Zach Scruggs largely on his testimony.
Prosecutor Chad Lamar asked Balducci about conversations with Backstrom, in which he said “they” were anxious to get the arbitration order signed by Lackey.
“Aside from Sid, the only other ‘theys’ were Dickie and Zach?” Lamar said.
“Yes sir,” Balducci answered.
Robertson will get another round with Balducci today at 9 a.m.

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1595 or patsy.brumfield@journalin.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal