BILL MINOR: Prosecutor’s true stories ring with humor

By Bill Minor

My first read of John Hailman’s “From Midnight to Guntown” was in rough copy. Now, after put through editing and in hard copy from University Press of Mississippi, the ex-prosecutor’s courtroom stories (all true) are even funnier.
Hailman is a multifaceted guy. You’d think a hardnosed federal prosecutor would have no other interests than criminal law. But wine connoisseur and syndicated wine columnist with a soft heart for bank robbers? John’s all of that, and more.
Midnight and Guntown are actually two little burgs in Mississippi that figured somewhere in the dozens of crimes Hailman prosecuted in his 30-plus years in federal courtrooms. Instead of making Midnight and Guntown part of his book title, John could have done some highbrow name-dropping such by mentioning he once studied at the Sorbonne, the world-renowned Paris institution where he spent two years of his five-stop journey up the higher education ladder.
He parlayed the fluency in French gained at the Sorbonne into a becoming a youngish wine consultant, beginning as a clerk at a wine shop while a student at Georgetown. That led to a gig as a wine columnist at The Washington Post, later syndicating his column to other papers. He broke into book print with his acclaimed “Thomas Jefferson on Wine” based on his research of the nation’s third president.
When I first wrote about Hailman’s then-unpublished “Midnight to Guntown,” I was fascinated with his account of his unlikely role in helping save the life of Mississippi’s revered Sen. John C. Stennis on the night the senator was shot in a 1973 holdup outside his home in the District of Columbia. Then Stennis’ newly-hired junior legal staffer, Hailman was drafted to stand watch over the wounded Stennis while doctors at Walter Reed Hospital struggled to save his life. Though initially given little chance of survival, Stennis pulled through and Hailman was applauded for his help.
The Stennis episode behind him, Hailman came back to his native Mississippi, first as law clerk for Northern U.S. District judge Bill Keady – one of the rare moderates on Mississippi’s federal bench – at a time the state was in the throes of court-ordered school desegregation. Then after getting a taste of real world Mississippi with Keady, John was hired as an assistant U.S. Attorney for North Mississippi, based in Oxford, where he would spend the next 30 years or so until taking retirement in 2008.
That was the spot where Hailman saw every type of miscreant, ranging from dozens of the “untouchable” county supervisors nabbed in the FBI’s 1980s sting “Operation Pretense,” to former “King of Torts” Dickie Scruggs, troupe through the federal courtroom. And along the way were the assorted bank robbers such as the preacher in a Volvo who robbed an Oxford bank and an incompetent robber who saved the life of a bank teller in the tiny town of Lula.
Hailman built a good batting average of convictions of the Pretense supervisors. The operation was so named because the FBI had established a fake company to sell road culverts, long a popular item in road construction contracts that the county officials handled. Federal agents acting as salesmen for the company would dangle a little sweetener in the form of money as part of the deal if supers picked their company.
Knowing how long black citizens had been kept out of public office, it grieved Hailman that the first case he successfully prosecuted was a black supervisor from Winston County. But John got satisfaction when he learned Winston County voters had elected another African-American to replace the corrupted official.
Hailman peripherally was pulled into the attempted bribery case that would bring down nationally famed trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs. State Judge Henry Lackey of Oxford turned out to be the whistle-blower in the case that dethroned Scruggs. Lackey had enlisted Hailman, a longtime friend then in the process of retiring from his job, for advice as to what to do about a strange contact made by Tim Balducci, an associate in the Scruggs law firm, asking Lackey to dismiss a civil suit against the prominent trial attorney brought by Jackson attorney Johnny Jones over division of legal fees. Hailman turned over Lackey’s info to the FBI, and then got out of Dodge.
As is well-known from the record of the highly publicized case, the FBI “wired” Lackey to tape Balducci when he later contacted the judge. Scruggs, while only remotely linked to the bribe offer in the wire tapes, did eventually plead guilty to attempted bribery.
But unintentionally Hailman had become the messenger in what author-journalist Curtiss Wilkie has described in his book, “The Fall of the House of Zeus.”
Syndicated columnist BILL MINOR has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.