Prosecutors accused of relying on ‘tainted evidence’ in bribery case

Published 7:13 pm Wednesday, January 16, 2008

OXFORD (AP) — Federal prosecutors relied on “tainted evidence” and distorted accounts of wiretapped conversations to bring judicial bribery charges against powerful plaintiffs attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, defense attorneys claim in court papers unsealed Wednesday.

Scruggs’ lawyers accuse prosecutors of ignoring evidence that Scruggs wasn’t aware of a bribe that attorney Timothy Balducci allegedly offered to state Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey in exchange for a favorable ruling in a civil case.

John Alexander, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Email newsletter signup

Prosecutors claim that Balducci tried to bribe Lackey on Scruggs’ behalf in a dispute over $26.5 million in attorneys’ fees. Balducci has pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and is cooperating with authorities.

The court papers unsealed Wednesday indicate that Scruggs, who made millions in tobacco and asbestos litigation, plans to blame Balducci and the judge for attempting to link him to wrongdoing.

Scruggs’ attorneys argue that Lackey, who reported the bribery overture to authorities and cooperated with investigators, “created the alleged crime by suggesting, urging and constructing a bribe.”

To support their argument, Scruggs’ lawyers cite several passages from a series of conversations between Balducci and Lackey that investigators taped without Balducci’s knowledge.

In the court papers, defense attorneys say Balducci “specifically distances Scruggs from the process” when he delivered $20,000 in cash to Lackey on Sept. 27.

“If this is not Mr. Scruggs’ money, I don’t want a nickel of it,” Lackey told Balducci, according to Scruggs’ lawyers.

Balducci responded, “I want you to know … this is between me and you, and just between me and you … there ain’t another soul in the world that knows about this.”

“I would think Mr. Scruggs would have to know something about it,” Lackey said later in the conversation.

“Well, here’s how it works … there will come a time where I will sit him down in private and I will tell him that I’ve solved a problem for him,” Balducci answered.

Later, according to Scruggs’ lawyers, Balducci tells Lackey that Scruggs is “not involved in a direct manner, doesn’t want to be, doesn’t need to be. … You take comfort in knowing this is between me and you.”

Defense lawyers say prosecutors didn’t mention those exchanges when they asked for permission to wiretap phones used by Balducci and former state Auditor Steven Patterson, who pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to bribe Lackey and also is cooperating with authorities.

“And that in turn led to further tainted evidence used to secure a grand jury indictment,” Scruggs’ lawyers wrote. “This chain of tainted interceptions and searches will be grounds for a motion to dismiss (the charges) due to government misconduct.”

During a hearing Wednesday in Oxford, Scruggs attorney John Keker didn’t mention any plans to seek a dismissal of the charges against Scruggs; Scruggs’ son and law partner, Zach; and Scruggs associate Sidney Backstrom, who also is a lawyer.

However, Keker said he and other defense lawyers wanted a continuance in the case because they are still waiting for prosecutors to hand over evidence and they also need more time to go over new allegations in the broadening investigation.

U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. agreed to postpone the trial from Feb. 25 to March 31.

The case expanded last week when attorney Joey Langston, who briefly represented Scruggs in the Lackey case, pleaded guilty to conspiring with Scruggs and other associates to illegally influence Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in a separate dispute over attorneys’ fees from asbestos litigation.

“We haven’t even begun to get into that,” Keker told Biggers. “All we know about this is what we read about in the newspaper.”

Prosecutors claim Langston conspired with Scruggs, Patterson and others to get DeLaughter to rule in Scruggs’ favor by offering to help DeLaughter get appointed to the federal bench. Neither DeLaughter nor Scruggs has been charged in that case.

The government could introduce the Hinds County allegations as part of the trial for the existing bribery charges against Scruggs or they could seek to separate indictment against the attorney. Prosecutors have not indicated what they plan to do.

Prosecutors declined to discuss the recorded conversations after Wednesday’s hearing.