Deposition may interfere with judicial bribery case

Published 12:53 am Saturday, December 29, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A powerful Mississippi lawyer charged with trying to bribe a judge is seeking to block State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. from questioning him under oath for one of the hundreds of lawsuits his firm filed against the insurer after Hurricane Katrina.

Earlier this month, a federal magistrate ruled that attorney Richard ‘‘Dickie’’ Scruggs can be questioned about his work with two sisters who gave him reams of internal State Farm records while they were helping the company adjust Katrina claims.

On Thursday, Scruggs asked a different federal judge in Gulfport, Miss., to overrule that Dec. 12 ruling by U.S. Magistrate Robert Walker.

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In court papers, a lawyer for Scruggs argues that forcing him to submit to a deposition by State Farm attorneys would violate the confidentiality of his attorney-client relationship with Cori and Kerri Rigsby of Ocean Springs, Miss.

State Farm also wants to question Scruggs’ son and law partner, Zach, about his involvement with the Rigsby sisters, who were employed by a company that contracted with State Farm after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane.

‘‘Depositions of opposing counsel, such as the ones ordered by Magistrate Walker, have been regularly criticized for disrupting the adversarial system and lowering the standards of the legal profession,’’ wrote John Keker, one of Scruggs’ attorneys.

Keker also argues that a deposition would interfere with Scruggs’ defense in a pair of criminal cases he faces in north Mississippi and Alabama.

Scruggs was charged with criminal contempt after a federal judge in Birmingham, Ala., ruled he willfully violated a court order to return the documents given to him by the Rigsby sisters.

Also, on Nov. 28, a grand jury in Oxford, Miss., indicted Richard Scruggs, his son and three others on charges they tried to bribe a state judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in fees from a mass settlement of Katrina cases against State Farm.

A trial for the judicial bribery case is scheduled for Feb. 25.

‘‘Rather than submitting to unnecessary depositions,’’ Keker wrote, ‘‘the Scruggses need to devote their attention to their defenses in that case as well as the criminal contempt case. These depositions unnecessarily and unduly intrude upon their ability to work on those cases.’’

In court papers filed Friday, Keker said he and other defense attorneys are still waiting for prosecutors to share key evidence in the judicial bribery case.

Prosecutors videotaped conversations between Judge Henry Lackey and attorney Timothy Balducci, who allegedly tried to bribe Lackey on Richard Scruggs’ behalf. Balducci already has pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the case and is cooperating with investigators.

The FBI also wiretapped phones used by Balducci and Steven Patterson, a former state auditor who worked with Balducci and is charged with trying to bribe Lackey. Keker is seeking copies of recordings from both wiretaps.

In the meantime, U.S. District Judge L.T. Senter Jr. hasn’t immediately ruled on Scruggs’ bid to reverse Walker’s ruling.

State Farm spokesman Fraser Engerman said Scruggs’ deposition shouldn’t be delayed.

‘‘A federal judge has already turned down a similar motion by him, and the interests of justice require that the events leading up to this civil litigation be fully known,’’ Engerman added.

Scruggs, who made hundreds of millions of dollars from his work on a landmark settlement with tobacco companies in the mid-1990s, filed hundreds of lawsuits against insurers for refusing to pay for damage to homes from Katrina.

The Rigsby sisters, who worked for E.A. Renfroe and Co. Inc., a claims adjusting firm, were hired by Scruggs as consultants — and paid $150,000 apiece — after they leaked him thousands of pages of State Farm documents.

The sisters also are named as plaintiffs in a so-called ‘‘whistleblower’’ suit that Scruggs filed against insurers, accusing the companies of fraudulently overbilling the federal government for Katrina’s flood damage.