John Agnew: Here’s a news item beyond all comprehension

Let me say at the outset that I have never conspired to bribe a judge, not one single time, and probably you never did, either.

This is one of several things that separates us from Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, Esq., of Oxford, Miss. I am not particularly proud that I never bribed a judge, or tried to, because I never had occasion to consider it. Nobody ever suggested it to me, either. You can’t be proud of not doing something that you never thought of doing in the first place—that’s a general rule.

I am distinguished from Mr. Scruggs in some other ways, as well. He is one of the richest men in Mississippi, and I am not. He is famous, and I am not. He was interviewed on “Sixty Minutes,” I think while riding in his private jet plane, and I was not, which I think is unfortunate. He is Sen. Trent Lott’s brother-in-law, and I am not, which is quite all right with me.

He is going to prison for five years, and I am most definitely not, which is fine with me. His son is going to prison, as well, and that is perhaps the happiest “I am not” that I can pick out of this incident. Going to prison is pretty awful, and to have your son accompany you because of something you instigated would be a bitter pill, even for the rich and famous.

Backing up a little, Mr. Scruggs is the small-town Mississippi attorney who led the charge against Big Tobacco, representing 46 states plus some territories in a class-action suit. This was about 11 years ago, when the tobacco companies agreed to pay the states some $205 billion over 25 years if the states would stop suing them. The tobacco companies had been litigation-proof for 40 years, until the idea was born of suing for the costs to Medicaid for care of diseases caused by tobacco.

The clincher came when Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist and tobacco executive, came forward with the hard evidence that had been carefully hidden all those years. The movie about this is “The Insider,” and it is worth watching. The part of Mr. Scruggs is played by Colm Feore, who is not well known.

If I am ever portrayed in a movie, I have already specified Robert Redford, although Alice has said something about the “for the people” guy in those commercials. This is not important.

Mr. Scruggs scored his first big success suing the asbestos industry, also a class-action suit. Tobacco was next. Most recently his firm has been suing insurance companies regarding rejected claims from Hurricane Katrina victims. The man is evidently a very shrewd attorney, because he wins complex cases involving companies with armies of lawyers. He is good at what he does.

He is paid well to win, as you might suspect, from such settlements as the one for $205 billion. This is an amount of money understood only by people in government or astronomy; the rest of us cannot even imagine what that means. It’s just a whole lot of zeros. His firm was probably paid with 800 pounds of $10,000 bills, the most practical way they could find to transfer the money.

According to the interview on “Sixty Minutes,” this allowed them to fly around the country in their private jets, looking for interesting and lucrative cases. This is expensive, but money was no object for Mr. Scruggs, either personally or professionally. The music building at the University of Mississippi, his alma mater, had Mr. Scruggs’ name over the front door, in recognition of his generosity. That’s another item I can’t match.

Sad to say, his name was recently removed from that building. The reason is that Scruggs will be going to prison in August, for a period of five years, and this is a consequence of his conviction for conspiring to bribe a judge. No appeal is necessary, because he pleaded guilty. Many notable people wrote the judge a letter requesting leniency for Dickie, pointing out, no doubt, that he “made a mistake.” That, friends, was not a mistake. Leaving an “s” out of “Mississippi” is a mistake; bribing a judge is a crime. The difference between the two amounts to five years in prison. It’s not complicated.

The judge spoke harshly to the man at his sentencing, and intimated that perhaps this was not the first time he had attempted to bribe a judge, and that the investigation was not over. I’m sure Scruggs was delighted to hear that. He has to be very thorough to be a successful attorney, so he certainly appreciates thoroughness in others.

You might wonder why the man would do this. I certainly do, and I doubt that I will ever understand the workings of his mind. He went from money to fame to professional distinction to personal humiliation.

That’s called “coming full circle.”

Fort Myers News-Press