Witnesses: Zach Scruggs didn’t know about money

OXFORD – Three key players in one of Mississippi’s most shocking judicial bribery scandals said Tuesday they did not believe Zach Scruggs knew anything about money to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey.
n Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, his father, said in a written statement that he never discussed with Zach nor was he ever aware that Zach had any knowledge of any agreement or about any money to Lackey.
n Sid Backstrom, his former law partner, said he never told Zach that money had been paid to Lackey for an order.
n Steve Patterson, former Balducci Law Group partner, said that when he negotiated his own plea, “I told them I didn’t know why Zach was named, that he wasn’t involved.”
Testimony resumes today in U.S. District Court, where a hearing began Monday aimed at airing “all issues” related to Zach Scruggs’ 2008 guilty plea that he knew about but failed to report that an associate spoke illegally to Lackey, who presided over a legal-fees lawsuit against Scruggs Katrina Group.
Last fall, the Oxford man asked the court to throw out his conviction and sentence, saying new evidence and a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision actually proved he was innocent.
In court this week, his attorneys also must prove he is innocent of what’s left of a 2007 indictment accusing him of being part of the conspiracy to bribe Lackey. His father, Backstrom, Patterson and Patterson’s partner Tim Balducci all went to jail for their guilty pleas in the scandal.
Tuesday, the verbally flamboyant Patterson sparred with prosecutors about his knowledge of a parallel scheme to bribe Hinds Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who presided over another legal-fees lawsuit against a Scruggs litigation group.
In one exchange about Balducci’s comments to Lackey that Patterson’s political connections were so deep, he could “make it storm,” Patterson alluded to the scandal, telling a prosecutor, “I helped make a pretty damn good storm here, didn’t I? A hurricane.”
The first squall began in March 2007, when Balducci asked his mentor, Lackey, to send the Scruggs lawsuit to arbitration. During that conversation, he urged Lackey to join his new law firm when he retired.
After several weeks of indecision, Lackey alerted the FBI about a possible bribery attempt.
Patterson said he viewed Lackey’s undercover request for $40,000 to send the lawsuit to arbitration as “extortion at the government’s behest.”
“We were given a terrible dilemma,” the former state auditor said. “We felt sympathy for the judge. He did a great job of feigning his personal financial distress, about his health, he weighed heavy on the sympathies of Tim. Do we go through with it, do we ignore it or do we report it? Unfortunately, we made the wrong decision. We should have reported it.”
Earlier in the day, Backstrom walked the court through a series of critical meetings and phone conversations with Balducci, and said, up to a point, neither he nor Zach was aware of any payments to Lackey.
But by a Nov. 13 conversation with Balducci, who directly mentioned the money, Backstrom knew about the scheme.
In that conversation, Moore asked him, “When you hear about money being paid, it’s pretty clear that something bad has happened?”
“Seems like it,” responded Backstrom, who had to be subpoenaed for his testimony.
“You pleaded guilty to that,” Moore asked.
Backstrom responded, “I did.”

Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com.

Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal