AG: I wouldn’t have met with men knowing they were paid

Published 11:54 pm Wednesday, February 27, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — Attorney General Jim Hood says he would not have met with two men now entangled in a judicial bribery case had he known they were allegedly paid $500,000 to try to influence his investigation of an insurance company’s handling of Hurricane Katrina claims.

‘‘If I knew they were getting paid that much I would have told them to get out of the office because it just didn’t smell right,’’ Hood said Wednesday.

An FBI document made public this week as part of one judicial bribery case alleges embattled plaintiffs attorney Richard ‘‘Dickie’’ Scruggs paid two associates to convince Hood not to file criminal charges against State Farm Fire and Casualty Cos. Hood is not a party in the bribery investigation.

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Scruggs, who sued State Farm soon after the 2005 storm ravaged the Mississippi Gulf Coast, thought the company ‘‘was not going to settle the civil cases’’ if Hood didn’t withhold criminal charges, according to the report.

Hood acknowledged meeting with former State Auditor Steve Patterson and attorney Timothy Balducci around Christmas 2006, but said he was not influenced by them.

‘‘It was like they were fishing for information more than anything,’’ Hood said. ‘‘I didn’t get a dime, wasn’t offered a dime and wouldn’t have taken a dime.’’

Scruggs, Patterson and Balducci were indicted in November 2007, along with Scruggs’ son and law partner Zach, and another attorney in the Scruggs’ firm, Sidney Backstrom.

The men were charged with conspiring to bribe a state court judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Katrina insurance cases.

Balducci and Patterson have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with investigators. The Scruggses and Backstrom have pleaded not guilty.

While being interviewed by the FBI in November 2007, Balducci told agents that Scruggs paid him and Patterson to see ‘‘if they could get Hood to relent on indicting’’ State Farm, according to the report filed in federal court on Monday.

John Keker, an attorney for Scruggs, told The Associated Press on Wednesday: ‘‘I’m not going to talk about Balducci’s claim until we get to the trial.’’

A State Farm attorney suggested during a court hearing earlier this month that Scruggs dispatched Balducci and Patterson with a message for Hood: Scruggs, a political force with deep pockets, would support another candidate for attorney general if Hood charged State Farm with a crime.

Hood scoffed at the notion on Wednesday.

‘‘I didn’t care who (Scruggs) supported. I wasn’t crazy about being attorney general anyway,’’ Hood said, adding that he preferred being a district attorney.

Hood pointed out that the FBI document, based on an interview with Balducci, did not say Hood took any money or indicate any wrongdoing on his part. Hood said the reason he didn’t file criminal charges against State Farm at the time was because he didn’t have enough evidence to prove the insurer violated state law.

Hood’s comments came during a contentious news conference called to publicize his staff’s success in recovering some $166 million from various corporations since he took office in 2003. The latest collection was $8.9 million from Merck Pharmaceuticals Inc. over what Hood called ‘‘falsified drug prices.’’

Hood then railed on big businesses ‘‘that don’t care about the United States of America’’ and slammed the Wall Street Journal over an editorial that criticized his practice of hiring campaign contributors as outside legal counsel in lawsuits that paid millions in attorneys’ fees.

Joey Langston, one of Hood’s biggest campaign contributors and a former defense attorney for Scruggs, has pleaded guilty to charges he attempted to influence a judge for Scruggs in an unrelated case. Langston worked as a special assistant attorney general for Hood and earned millions in lawsuits on behalf of the state.

‘‘My response to corporate shills like the Wall Street Journal is that these corporations with fleets of lawyers would not have paid millions of dollars had they done nothing wrong,’’ Hood said.

Hood has lashed out at large corporations and the media in recent weeks, portraying himself as the defender of the downtrodden against corporate wrongdoers. He has been the subject of intense media coverage since State Farm sued him last year, accusing him of colluding with Scruggs and others to use the threat of criminal prosecution to force settlements in civil cases.

Hood eventually reached a settlement with State Farm earlier this month.