Son of high-profile lawyer Scruggs guilty of knowing about plot to influence Miss. judge

Published 4:17 pm Friday, March 21, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — The last defendant in the bribery case that brought down powerful plaintiffs’ attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs — his son — pleaded guilty Friday in a deal with federal prosecutors that could keep him out of prison.

Zach Scruggs pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony, which means he had knowledge of a felony but didn’t report it. He, his father and three others were originally charged with conspiring to bribe a judge in a dispute over $26.5 million in legal fees.

Misprision of a felony carries a three-year maximum prison sentence, but prosecutors are recommending probation for Zach Scruggs, 33. He could also be fined up to $250,000.

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In federal court in Oxford, Scruggs said Friday that he had no knowledge of an attempt to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey and would have stopped it if he had known. However, he said he knew that another lawyer had “improper contacts” with the judge and that he had a duty to report them.

“I am truly and humbly sorry for that, and I apologize to the court, to the legal profession I love so deeply, and to the people of the state of Mississippi,” Scruggs told U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers, according to a transcript of the proceedings.

“Of course,” Biggers responded, “the legal profession that you say you love so much, you will not be a part of it the rest of your life.”

Biggers said he expects to sentence Zach Scruggs in about six to eight weeks.

Todd Graves, an attorney for Zach Scruggs, declined to comment Friday.

Richard Scruggs, the “King of Torts” behind legal settlements that extracted billions of dollars from the tobacco and asbestos industries, among others, pleaded guilty last week to conspiring to bribe a judge. He faces up to five years in prison, and the Mississippi State Bar has filed a petition to disbar him.

Scruggs’ law partner Sidney Backstrom, attorney Timothy Balducci and former Mississippi State Auditor Steve Patterson also pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. Backstrom also faces disbarment and Balducci has given up his law license. A message seeking comment from the bar on whether it intends to file a petition to disbar Zach Scruggs was not immediately returned Friday.

The men were charged with conspiring to pay a judge $50,000 in a dispute over $26.5 million in fees from a settlement of Hurricane Katrina insurance lawsuits. The judge reported the bribe overture to the FBI and worked as an informant.

Joseph Langston, a lawyer who initially represented Richard Scruggs in the bribery case, pleaded guilty in January to conspiring with the elder Scruggs to bribe a different state judge in an unrelated lawsuit over fees from asbestos litigation.

Richard Scruggs hasn’t been charged with trying to illegally influence Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter in that other fee dispute. DeLaughter has denied any wrongdoing and defended a ruling that favored Scruggs.

On Wednesday, Mississippi’s judicial watchdog agency filed a complaint against DeLaughter and recommended suspending him from the bench while it investigates judicial misconduct allegations.