Late last summer, I handed off the day-to-day reins of Y’allPolitics to Frank Corder, who continues to do an outstanding job. A big reason for me standing down, besides the fact that after seven years I was tired, was that in my mind the Scruggs saga was basically over. As one of the few people who documented and stayed the course on the whole saga, I felt some obligation to “see it all through”. In speaking on Kings of Tort around Mississippi and throughout the country, I’ve told thousands of people that “the Scruggs will never give up, ever”. So I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re still dealing with this, but even I am amazed at the odds against which they will fight.
Don’t worry. I’m not coming back. Y’allPolitics remains in great hands with Frank. This is just a drive by post. A trip down memory lane, if you will. But calling it like I see it with regards to Scruggs et al became a driving force for Y’allPolitics and was the only reason to write Kings of Tort, and I wanted to get some capstone thoughts out there and connect the dots on these latest events.
First of all, some context. Remember that honest services fraud was not the only charge that Dickie Scruggs faced. Dickie faced wire fraud charges and conspiracy charges as well in Scruggs II. In Scruggs I, he faced six charges. I liken this to a criminal robbing a bank at gunpoint and stealing the getaway car and then pleading guilty to car theft. Just because they only plead guilty to car theft doesn’t mean that they didn’t rob the bank. That seems to be the sort of logic that Dickie is employing in this case. The feds had Dickie’s butt in a sling in Scruggs I and II and let him plead guilty to lesser charges to avoid further damage. The same goes for Zach Scruggs. Under the heading of “no good deed goes unpunished”, the Scruggs legal team is attempting to spit it back in the government’s face by fighting technicalities on the lesser charges the pleaded guilty to. Dickie’s standard to win this trial should have been that he prove actual innocence to everything he was originally accused of – not just what he pleaded to.
This week, Dickie Scruggs, like his son before him last May, had his day in court in a hearing to attempt to undo his guilty plea. I chose not to attend this one because I was convinced that I had seen Zach’s hearing play out in a way that I thought Dickie’s would as well. Nothing new, I was convinced, would happen.
Like his son, Dickie had Mike Moore, Chip Robertson and various other legal and personal hangers-on in their universe orbiting the pater familias like planets around the sun. Like his son, Dickie spared no expense with high dollar lawyers who wrote complicated, fancy briefs arguing every arcane legal point possible. Like his son, Dickie had many in the press willing to regurgitate anything they wanted to create favorable impressions. Like his son, Dickie put dozens of people (government lawyers, court personnel, media, family, friends and witnesses) through a lot just to make these hearings happen.
Like his son, Dickie chickened out at the moment of truth.
It’s pretty hard for anyone to take seriously two men who, when given the opportunity to fight for their innocence (after under oath admitting their guilt and refusing to fight for it the first time), cannot bring themselves to at least testify as to their own innocence. It smacks of an otherworldly sense of entitlement that I believe they display. All those that testified (Trent Lott, former and current congressional aides, Steve Patterson, Joey Langston, Steve Funderburg, Tim Balducci and others) were just pawns on the Scruggs chess board that weren’t even afforded the courtesy of seeing the accused stand up for themselves.
Like Zach’s hearing, Dickie’s hearing simply ended not with a bang, but with a wimper.
Ultimately, what these hearings were supposed to be about was not what the hearings were about at all. This hearing couldn’t really have been about getting his guilty plea overturned. It was about spin, PR, a narrative and possibly an appeals process where fancy lawyering in front of judges who weren’t close to the truth of the case (geographically or practically) might find a technicality or force a procedural misstep.
Last June, I put it this way.
My opinion is that Zach Scruggs legal team doesn’t want the legal result they say they’re seeking. Instead, I think they’re just looking for the righteousness of the fight. Bear with me here. From someone who has studied this for three years, I can tell you that PR and their public narrative are indescribably important issues for them. I believe they want a comeback narrative and this legal fight (which has the high likelihood of losing on the merits) gives that to them. My opinion is that Zach will strike out at every level with the legal argument, but will get the karmic benefit of being able to say something like, “the government was out to get me and my lawyer screwed me and I have fought them at every level and even though I lost, I maintain my innocence.” Mind you, there doesn’t seem to be any proof for that narrative whatsoever, but I believe he is setting himself up from a PR perspective to be a martyr of sorts for “overzealous government prosecution” or some similar tune. Time will tell if I’m right on that, but given the circumstances, it’s the only way I can reconcile their behavior.
The facts of Scruggs II, which this hearing covered, were never in doubt. Zach’s hearing revolved around “what did Zach hear and when did Zach hear it.” In Dickie’s appeal, both the Government and the Scruggs defense agree on the chain of events. Scruggs, like his buddy Paul Minor, pretty freely admit to doing some pretty abhorrent stuff, but at the end of the day, neither believed their actions to be criminal (at least overtly). Both Scruggs and Minor asserted first amendment privileges on their conduct. Both of them hung their hat on the fact that, although there was improper influence, the judges that were corruptly influenced “made the correct legal decision”. Therefore, “no harm, no foul.” Both Dickie and Paul Minor knew that they would never ever face state charges, but they always said that their crimes were not federal crimes.
Though I wasn’t in Oxford this week, I have kept up with events via the courtroom accounts from Tom Freeland and others and talked to many folks who were there (from both pro and anti-Scruggs perspectives). Here are the things that stood out the most to me.
1. Trent Lott was the ultimate patsy in this whole affair. Monday’s testimony proved it. As stated in Kings of Tort, Lott was used by Scruggs even if he didn’t (or still doesn’t) realize it. Scruggs and his crew set a chain of events in motion to make Bobby DeLaughter think they could pull the strings and help him get what he wanted most. DeLaughter believed it. Lott’s call, though seemingly innocuous from Lott’s perspective, had a totally different context to DeLaughter. It validated Peters/Langston/Scruggs’ influence. Lott wasn’t a bad guy, but Scruggs knowingly used him like a dishrag. A courtroom observer told me that they couldn’t believe how positive Lott’s disposition was on the stand given how obvious Scruggs’ manipulation was of him.
2. One of the best and most telling lines of the whole affair was delivered by everyone’s favorite former state auditor, Steve Patterson. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) “why buy the cow (DeLaughter) when their getting the milk (favorable ex parte treatment) for free.” If that isn’t a glimpse into Patterson’s soul, I’m not sure what is.
3. The standout moment for me was the account of Tim Balducci’s testimony. Chip Robertson snarked at Balducci on the stand for confusing the exact dates on a few items (6 years after the fact) and said something to the effect of “a lot of people are in jail because of your inability to remember correctly.” Balducci shot back basically with a tirade that went something like “everyone involved was in jail because they broke the law. I admitted what I did, went to the penitentiary, and served my time like a man.” Bravo!
Balducci’s admonition to Robertson was what I had been hoping all involved would do. Own the mistakes, pay the price and move on and mark out your days being a better man. If that had happened, there would never have been a book written by me or any of the national interest in Scruggs case that ensued. It would have just ended as a sad tale and the world would have just gone on with their business. What made this whole deal so interesting was the tragedy and the psyche of those who fought in the face of such obvious evidence of guilt. In my opinion neither Dickie Scruggs, Zach Scruggs, Sid Backstrom, Steve Patterson nor Bobby DeLaughter have ever shown real public contrition for their actions. They only seem mad that they got caught. Balducci has totally owned his role and I don’t think anyone will ever hear about him being involved in anything untoward ever again. Joey Langston certainly has a golden opportunity and certainly the financial means to have an enormously positive impact on his community for the rest of his days. His testimony felt like he still was being pulled from both ends of the spectrum, but at the end of the day, I hope the good side will win out for Joey.
So, it’s time for predictions. Here are mine.
1. Like his son, Dickie Scruggs will totally strike out on this motion.
2. He and Zach will both appeal as far as it can go (at the 5th Circuit, SCOTUS and the court of public opinion). They’ll both be wildly unsuccessful, but the comeback narrative will be based on them selling the righteousness of their fight. They still have lots of friends in the media and even a few in the legal community willing to tote their water, but their battle to obfuscate what happened will forever be uphill.
3. I know there’s been talk of a movie about Scruggs, but that movie will never ever be made. Though people undyingly loyal to Scruggs want a movie that would somehow show him as a victim or some sort of tragic hero, no historically accurate depiction of events could ever end well for the Scruggs. That’s why it will never happen. Ever.
Remember folks, at its core this story isn’t a gothic story about Southern fraternities, legal skullduggery, political tomfoolery or prosecutors gone wild. It’s a story about good and evil, and it’s not that complicated. Johnny Jones put it best when he said, “It’s about raw redneck greed.”