Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, disbarred.
Timothy Balducci, disbarred.
Sidney Backstrom, disbarred.
Zach Scruggs, disbarred.
Joey Langston, disbarred.
Ed Peters, disbarred.
Bobby DeLaughter, soon to be disbarred.
For Mississippi’s legal community, the past two years have been a stain on the profession as two judicial bribery scandals played out from Jackson north to Oxford.
Barely two months before, similar accusations and trials wrapped up in south Mississippi.
Today, the accumulated damage has left a scar on the Mississippi Bar, the state’s largest aggregation for the legal profession.
“This was a devastating blow and it’s not going to heal overnight,” says Nina Stubblefield Tollison of Oxford, who’ll become Bar president in July.
The bombshell went off two years ago – Nov. 28, 2007.
Dickie Scruggs, perhaps America’s most famous plaintiffs lawyer and a very wealthy man thanks to massive lawsuit legal fees, was indicted like a common criminal and accused of the worst thing a lawyer can do: try to bribe a judge.
Accused with him were his law partners – his son Zach and Sidney Backstrom – plus attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steve Patterson, who worked together in New Albany.
The news shocked the nation. Scruggs and company had been Giant Killers against Big Tobacco and Big Asbestos and they were bearing down on Big Insurance after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.
Oxford, where the senior Scruggs had moved from Pascagoula and Katrina’s wake, was Ground Zero.
“It really felt overwhelming … heartbreaking,” Tollison reflects.
Sworn testimony and wiretap transcripts would reveal that in March 2007, the men met in the Scruggses’ swanky upstairs office on the fabled Oxford Square and talked about a problem – Jones v. Scruggs, a lawsuit claiming a Jackson firm was still owed $2.6 million from working with Scruggs on Katrina insurance cases.
Balducci was urged to chat about it with Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey of Calhoun City, who was presiding over the case. Lackey was a mentor of sorts to Balducci when the attorney was a young public defender, and they continued their close relationship.
They had that conversation, and from it Balducci offered Lackey some financial help and an “of counsel” position with his new firm when the judge decided to retire.
Lackey agonized over their discussion for weeks, then took his concerns to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford.
Wiretaps and videotaped conversations later, Balducci folded to their revelations and became their inside man.
Across eight months of secrecy, federal prosecutors had what they wanted. They rounded up the five men, beginning a legal case that would rumble throughout the American legal community.
In the end of Phase 1, all of them pleaded guilty and went to prison.
Phase 2, which came to light barely six weeks after the first, revealed a similar scheme to bribe Hinds Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter over another legal-fees lawsuit against Scruggs. To this day, DeLaughter maintains he was not bribed.
In the second case, prominent Booneville litigator Joey Langston pleaded guilty right away and got prison time. When Scruggs admitted his part more than a year later, he got more time.
Perhaps the legal earthquake’s last tremor was Nov. 13, when DeLaughter pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, which was investigating allegations of inappropriate conversations about the Scruggs case with the judge’s old friend and mentor, former Hinds District Attorney Ed Peters.
Sixteen days ago, U.S. Attorney James Greenlee declined to say it was the end of the scandal prosecutions, but Peters was given immunity against his protege’.
At least one large loose end still dangles – P.L. Blake of Alabama, the self-described “handyman” for Scruggs. But nobody’s talking about that.
Although only a handful of attorneys were involved, the scandals have been rough on all Mississippi lawyers.
To many, the cases validated what many regular folks had been saying under their breaths for years: Lawyers think they’re better than anybody else. They’ll do what they have to do to win a case.
The blow was compounded to the University of Mississippi School of Law, where every defendant except Backstrom was a graduate.
Scruggs, one of the school’s consistent benefactors, admitted he tried to bribe one judge and bribed another. Four others said they were involved one way or another. His son said he knew about it but he didn’t tell anybody.
That’s what people think lawyers do, says current law school student Phillip Londeree of Petal.
“It’s that perception that an attorney’s goal is to screw you out of your money,” he said in a class discussion recently.
Parker Wiseman, now mayor of Starkville, was student body president for the Class of 2008, which had just begun its senior year when the Scruggs-Lackey case exploded into the public light.
Outside media and others questioned what kind of education those would-be lawyers were getting.
“It has made us want to go out there and prove them wrong,” Wiseman said back then.
George Fair of Jackson is the Bar’s state president and an Ole Miss Law grad. He’s followed in the footsteps of Bobby Bailess of Vicksburg and Rodger Wilder of Gulfport in taking steps to educate his legal community about the integrity and ethics expected of the profession.
“Our reputation has been damaged by a loss of respect and confidence in the legal system,” he says.
But he notes he believes the scandals “caused all of us to re-examine our practices and refocus on serving our clients and the courts with honesty and integrity.”
His successor, Nina Tollison, agrees 2009 continues to be a time “for repair work” for attorneys needing to rebuild trust with the public and each other.
Former law school professor Marc Harrold, now in Washington, D.C., says he thinks the outcome of the scandal disproved some negative public perceptions about Mississippi’s legal system.
“It shows the opposite – that corruption is not widespread or this would have gone unchecked,” he says.
Nathaniel Clark of Iuka, who aims to be part of the next generation of Mississippi’s legal profession, feels a commitment to reinforcing that conclusion.
“All you can do is really be aware of how you conduct yourself,” he says.
His law professor, Ben Cooper, agreed, saying the Mississippi judicial bribery scandals show the perils of lawyers’ excess.
“These people were fighting other lawyers about fees,” he notes.
They lost their way, Cooper says, when they forgot about their clients and thought only about themselves.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal