Mississippi: Tale of Corruption, Greed might not be Over

JERRY MITCHELL
www.clarionledger.com
FEBRUARY 11, 2009

ABERDEEN — Tuesday's sentencing of a former lawyer who was one of Mississippi's most powerful men could mark the beginning, not the end, of a tale of greed, power and corruption.

That's because Dickie Scruggs [brother-in-law, former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott] could become a key witness in future corruption cases.

"The system needs purging," said Clarksdale lawyer Charlie Merkel, lead counsel for one of Scruggs' former law partners, Bob Wilson. ...

Scruggs was sentenced to seven years in prison for taking part in a scheme to influence Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter, who heard a legal-fees dispute between Wilson and Scruggs in 2006. DeLaughter ruled largely in Scruggs' favor, reportedly in exchange for being considered for a federal judgeship.

Scruggs originally was charged with the wrongdoing in a still-sealed indictment, and prosecutors said Tuesday that others are named in that indictment.

DeLaughter is among those who could be named in the indictment. He has insisted he is innocent, saying he followed the law.

Because of his continuing cooperation, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Norman asked that Scruggs be moved from the federal prison in Ashland, Ky., to one much closer so that prosecutors can talk more readily to him. Scruggs' lead counsel, John Keker of San Francisco, asked U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson to recommend the prison in Forrest City, Ark., because of its proximity.

Under the plea bargain, prosecutors have promised Scruggs immunity in exchange for the incriminating information he divulges. Prosecutors also have promised not to have Scruggs turn over any other money.

Scruggs' cooperation could lead from the legal world into Mississippi's political world.

Prosecutors previously have described political operative P.L. Blake as a behind-the-scenes figure in the attempted bribery of Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey, who cooperated with the FBI. Blake has been mentioned but never charged in the case.

Court documents have described Blake as the man who bizarrely earned $50 million from the state's tobacco settlement by clipping newspapers and assessing political activity for Scruggs, who championed that settlement.

In 1988, Blake pleaded no contest to a federal charge that he offered bribes to Mississippi Bank officials in exchange for preferential treatment in securing loans. According to that indictment, he, his wife and their companies received $21 million in about 40 loans and renewals from the bank, which went belly up.

Tennessee lawyer Fred Thompson, a former Republican candidate for president, successfully argued Blake, the son of a sharecropper, should avoid prison, citing Blake's bankruptcy. Instead, Blake was ordered to pay a $1.5 million fine.

According to documents, Blake got the first $10 million of his $50 million from the tobacco settlement from Scruggs' former attorney, Joey Langston of Booneville, now serving three years in prison in the same case Scruggs pleaded guilty in Tuesday.

Wilfred Rattigan, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Mississippi, said corruption "strikes at the core of who we are as a country." He said citizens can report such possible crimes at the agency's Web site: reportcorruption.fbi.gov. ...

Full story -
http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20090211/NEWS/902110349/1001
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Excerpt: Scruggs' second guilty plea puts heat on Judge DeLaughter
www.clarionledger.com

... Scruggs is serving five years in prison for his part in a 2007 scheme that led to the payment of a $40,000 bribe - described in undercover FBI tapes as "sweet potatoes" - to Judge Lackey, who was hearing a legal fees dispute regarding Hurricane Katrina litigation.

Scruggs, his son Zach Scruggs, their former law partner Sidney Backstrom, then-attorney Timothy Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson were indicted in November 2007 and pleaded guilty across several months in 2008 in the Lackey case. Zach Scruggs and Backstrom are serving time in Arkansas.

Balducci and Patterson will be sentenced Friday in the Lackey case in Oxford. Balducci and Patterson are also cooperating with the feds in the Hinds County case.

While Peters has not been formally charged in the case, federal authorities have seized $425,000 from Peters linked to the Hinds County case. "Peters was a member of a conspiracy to corruptly influence a sitting state of Mississippi Circuit Court judge," according to the federal motion that won his forfeiture of the money.

Court records established that Peters allegedly received a total of $1 million for helping persuade DeLaughter to rule in Scruggs' favor in the legal fee dispute. The $425,000 is apparently all that's left after taxes and stock market losses.

Scruggs, Langston, Balducci, Patterson and Peters have all entered into one agreement or another with the feds regards the Hinds County case. The only figure who hasn't is DeLaughter.

While DeLaughter hasn't been charged with anything, the parade of plea bargains and subsequent cooperating witnesses can't bode well for the Hinds County jurist.

http://www.clarionledger.com/article/20090211/COL0412/902110316/1171/OPINION