A crowd of spectators watched Scruggs’ back as his shoulders began to shake uncontrollably. Before the former Navy fight pilot’s knees buckled, someone slid a chair under him.
He sat until he could stand to face his sentence: 5 years in federal prison, 3 years of supervised release, a $250,000 fine that also will cover the cost of his incarceration, which Biggers said Scruggs could well afford.
Biggers allowed the 62-year-old Scruggs to make a statement before he was sentenced for conspiring to bribe a state court judge, a crime Biggers calculated would have saved the multimillionaire $400,000.
Scruggs described the mental and spiritual cost of a crime in which his son, attorney Zach Scruggs, also was caught up. Zach faces up to three years when he is sentenced next week for failure to report a felony.
“I could not be more ashamed than to be where I am today, mixed up in a judicial bribery scheme that I participated in,” Scruggs said. “I realized that I was getting mixed up in it. And I will go to my grave wondering why.
“I have disappointed everyone in my life, my wife, my family, my son, particularly; my friends, many of whom were kind enough to come up today and to write to the Court.
“I deeply regret my conduct. I’m sorrowful for it. It is a scar and a stain on my soul that will be there forever.”
His attorney, John Keker, added, “He has fallen about as far as a man can fall.”
Biggers said he found his duty Friday most “unpleasant.” He has sentenced bankers, doctors – even other lawyers.
“But your case, I believe, is the saddest of any of these others that I’ve just mentioned,” Biggers said. “And it’s the saddest because these other cases, every one of them, these bankers and lawyers and doctors all thought they needed money or they did need money. And they were willing to risk their freedom and their profession to get some money.
“And yet you – you neither thought you needed money nor did need money; yet you committed a reprehensible crime which, in my opinion, is one of the most reprehensible crimes that a lawyer can commit, the corruption of the rule of law which he’s sworn to uphold.
“And you did that just to give yourself a better position in a lawsuit than you would have gotten had you not done it.”
Scruggs co-defendant Sidney Backstrom, a member of his Oxford law firm who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe the judge, was also sentenced Friday. He was given 28 months in prison and a $250,000 fine.
More ‘bodies buried’?
One of Scruggs’ co-conspirators in the bribery said Delta businessman P.L. Blake ensured Scruggs would pay Circuit Judge Henry Lackey $50,000 for an order that would send a legal-fee dispute to an arbitration panel rather than a jury.
Blake has testified – in yet another fee dispute between Scruggs and a fellow attorney – that Scruggs is supposed to pay him $50 million over 20 years from tobacco-settlement fees for monitoring news reports and public sentiment during the politically charged negotiations Scruggs led in the late 1990s.
Biggers also referred to judicial bribery co-conspirator Timothy Balducci, who agreed to cooperate with the investigation after he learned his conversations with Judge Lackey had been taped.
“When I see, from this case and others, that people who are not lawyers are getting considerable amounts of money from a legal settlement and – you know, it intrigues me as to how – what they’re doing to earn it, if anything,” Biggers said.
“Balducci said that you know where a lot of bodies are buried. If you want to uncover some of those bodies, it might help you in the future in this case and this sentencing.”
Biggers said Scruggs so readily and easily agreed to the bribe that he seemed to have done this before. Scruggs remains under investigation for alleged bribery of Hinds County Circuit Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
“You found out that Judge Lackey is not a man to bribe,” Biggers said. “You picked the wrong man to try to bribe.”
Attorney Dickie Scruggs has asked to be sent to the minimum-security prison in Pensacola where his former friend Paul Minor is jailed.
Minor, a Biloxi attorney, began serving an 11-year sentence there after he was convicted in early 2007 of bribing two Circuit Court judges from Gulfport. Scruggs, who once considered Minor the brother he never had, was forced to testify for the prosecution at Minor’s 2007 trial.
They stopped speaking after Minor was indicted in 2003. Minor, who is appealing his conviction, has claimed his prosecution was political. A major indication, he said, was the federal government’s failure to charge Scruggs in that case.
Scruggs began the bribery scheme that led to his downfall within days of stepping off the witness stand in Minor’s case.
U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. said he will recommend that Scruggs be sent to Pensacola, where his wife would have an easier time visiting, but the Bureau of Prisons has the final say. It is unclear whether the bureau would consider housing the men in the same facility, a popular one with white-collar criminals.
Dickie Scruggs could not even tell federal Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr. why he offered a $50,000 bribe to a Circuit judge to gain advantage in a fee dispute with another lawyer.
Scruggs might have saved a few hundred thousand, or even a few million, by getting the case before an arbitration panel, where he tried to bribe a judge to send it. But what’s a few million to a multimillionaire many times over?
Biggers discussed motive when Scruggs was sentenced Friday: “I’ve heard it described by some that it was greed. I’ve heard some say it was avarice. I’ve heard some say that you did it simply because you thought you could, that you had done it before and you thought you could do it – and you felt you could do it again.
“And I’m going to leave it up to – others to ascribe to you the motive that you had in your mind when you chose to do it.
“I do not have to know why you did it; I just have to know that you did it. And there’s no doubt that you did it.”
Many have said the case is worthy of a John Grisham novel, but he wasn’t the writer Scruggs’ attorney, John Keker, thought could do the story justice.
“I think it would take a (William) Faulkner or a Walker Percy to understand how people – how these kinds of things happen,” Keker told Biggers. “But there’s a passivity about Dick Scruggs in this instance that I think I’m beginning to understand, but I just don’t understand how it all happened.”
Clarksdale lawyer Charles Merkel Jr. thinks he does. An attorney client of Merkel’s was involved in another protracted legal-fee dispute with Scruggs.
Scruggs even sued Merkel during the course of the litigation, spending $1.7 million to fight over $4,800, by Merkel’s estimation. The case was thrown out. Merkel is suing Scruggs for malicious prosecution.
He attended Scruggs’ sentencing Friday and commented afterward on the motive: “I think personal pride, personal ego, having had success with things that were on the edge of accepted behavior for so long that he had reached the point where any means to an end was OK. He thought he was invincible, bulletproof, if you will.”
“The admitted crimes of the defendants undermine the very foundation of our legal system. They have violated their sworn duty to our judicial system and their obligation to the profession. We have every confidence in the legal system and believe that the punishment to be mandated by the Court will be appropriate under our rule of law.” – Bobby Bailess, president of the Mississippi Bar
“The Department of Justice is committed to enforce the laws of the United States. Illegal acts to undermine our system of justice such as attempts to bribe judges will not be tolerated. In this case, other defendants remain to be sentenced. Our investigation continues. We should not comment further.”
Jim M. Greenlee, U.S. Attorney for Mississippi’s Northern District
“It’s a sad day for the judicial system of our state. No one wins in such situations, but by these sentences and the earlier convictions, justice has been served. Hopefully, our system has been strengthened, not weakened, and we can move forward to better serve the citizens of Mississippi.”
Jim Hood, Mississippi