On Friday, his critics rested their case in the court of public opinion. The storied Mississippi lawyer — the man who engineered the monumental tobacco settlement of the 1990s, then took on Big Insurance after Hurricane Katrina — pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he conspired to bribe a judge.
It was the second time this week that an immensely powerful man was brought low by temptation and transgression. In the case of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, it was a sex scandal involving call girls. To some observers, Scruggs’ case was more baffling: A man who had amassed one of the most formidable fortunes in Mississippi was indicted for orchestrating a $50,000 bribe to a judge deciding how to divide $26.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
It was money he almost certainly didn’t need.
“Dick Scruggs’ genius was he figured out how to make a lot of money doing a lot of good for a lot of people,” said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington advocacy group.
“The irony is that . . . the lawyer who revealed how many other lawyers buried documents and were complicit in the tobacco industry’s cover-up is the only one who is likely to go to jail,” Myers said.
Scruggs’ guilty plea came during a hearing Friday in federal court in Oxford, Miss., where his law firm commands a prominent place in the central square. Sidney A. Backstrom, an attorney in Scruggs’ firm, pleaded guilty to a similar conspiracy charge.
Prosecutors are to recommend a five-year sentence for Scruggs and 2 1/2 years for Backstrom. Without the plea deal, Scruggs could have faced up to 75 years in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.
The Mississippi Bar Assn. said it would seek “immediate suspension and ultimately disbarment” for the two.