From the Los Angeles Times:
ATLANTA — Over the years, Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs earned a reputation as one of the nation’s wiliest and most powerful plaintiff’s attorneys. Along the way he was hailed as a champion of the little guy. He was also derided as a scoundrel who would stoop as low as necessary to get his way — and fatten his bank account.
On Friday, his critics rested their case in the court of public opinion. The storied Mississippi lawyer — the man who engineered the monumental tobacco settlement of the 1990s, then took on Big Insurance after Hurricane Katrina — pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he conspired to bribe a judge.
[Scruggs, who] had amassed one of the most formidable fortunes in Mississippi was indicted for orchestrating a $50,000 bribe to a judge deciding how to divide $26.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
It was money he almost certainly didn’t need.
Scruggs’ guilty plea came during a hearing Friday in federal court in Oxford, Miss., where his law firm commands a prominent place in the central square. Sidney A. Backstrom, an attorney in Scruggs’ firm, pleaded guilty to a similar conspiracy charge.
Prosecutors are to recommend a five-year sentence for Scruggs and 2 1/2 years for Backstrom. Without the plea deal, Scruggs could have faced up to 75 years in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.
The Mississippi Bar Assn. said it would seek “immediate suspension and ultimately disbarment” for the two.
Scruggs’ son, attorney David Zachary Scruggs, is also charged in the conspiracy but did not enter a plea Friday. A trial is scheduled for March 31.
A brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Dickie Scruggs moved in powerful circles.
The case that proved to be Scruggs’ undoing came after Katrina struck the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005. Thousands lost their homes, including Scruggs, whose beachfront house in Pascagoula was obliterated.
He and other lawyers formed the Scruggs Katrina Group and began signing up residents who felt that insurance companies had improperly denied their claims. The group reached an $80-million settlement with State Farm, one of the largest insurers on the coast, but ended up back in court over the disbursement of the legal fees.
In November 2007, federal prosecutors named Dickie Scruggs, Zach Scruggs, Backstrom and two other men in the scheme to bribe Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey. Their goal, prosecutors said, was to get Lackey to rule in their favor in the legal-fee dispute.
Things apparently went wrong from the beginning. Lackey reported a “bribery overture” to federal officials, then worked undercover to help investigators expose the scheme.
Two of the men pleaded guilty and began cooperating with prosecutors. One of them, attorney Timothy R. Balducci, told the FBI he paid Lackey the bribe on instructions from Scruggs and Backstrom.
Today, Mississippians are wondering what effect Scruggs’ guilty plea will have on homeowners’ remaining cases against State Farm, in which millions of dollars is potentially at stake.
[David] Rossmiller [, an attorney in Portland, Ore., whose Insurance Coverage Law Blog has focused on Scruggs’ recent troubles,] thinks the insurance giant will benefit.
“It affects the potential jury pool for a civil case, whether anybody wants to admit that or not,” he said.