“I joined a conspiracy late in the game,” Scruggs said. “It wasn’t exactly what prosecutors indicated … But I did join the conspiracy.”

Oxford – Attorney Richard “Dickie” Scruggs seemed to be in good spirits this morning — patting friends on the shoulder and even introducing himself to reporters — moments before pleading guilty to conspiracy to bribe a judge.

Scruggs could face up to five years in prison when U.S. District Court Judge Neal Biggers Jr. sentences him in about six weeks.

Scruggs’ law partner, Sydney Backstrom, also pleaded guilty this morning. Part of his plea was an agreement that his sentence would be no more than half of whatever prison time Scruggs receives.

The hearing, scheduled at 10 this morning, was originally set to hear three motions filed by the defense earlier this week. One of those motions concerned Backstrom asking Biggers to sever his trial from Scruggs’ trial.

Attorneys for Scruggs and Backstrom did not say why their clients decided to change their pleas this morning.

Absent from the courtroom this morning was Scruggs’ son, Zach, who is also facing conspiracy charges.

The Scruggses, Backstrom, Timothy Balducci and Steve Patterson were indicted in November for trying to bribe Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000 for a favorable ruling in a lawsuit against the senior Scruggs. Balducci and Patterson have already pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

During his plea hearing, Scruggs told Biggers he was proud to have had John Keker as his attorney, when Biggers asked if he was satisfied with Keker’s representation.
When Biggers asked Scruggs if he, in fact, conspired to corruptly bribe Judge Lackey, Scruggs paused a moment before answering.

“I joined a conspiracy late in the game,” Scruggs said. “It wasn’t exactly what prosecutors indicated … But I did join the conspiracy.”

His relaxed manner and frequent smiles made Scruggs appear almost glad the whole ordeal was over.

But Backstrom wasn’t so jovial.

“I apologize to the court,” Backstrom said before breaking down and crying. Through tears he added, “to my family. I made some of the worst decisions of my life in this case.”

Biggers said his apology was entered into the record and appeared almost sympathetic.
“No doubt you made some awful decisions,” Biggers said to Backstrom. “But you’re here accepting the responsibilities of those decisions.”

Scruggs offered no apology.

The original motions were set to be argued after the court recessed. As of press time this morning, Zach Scruggs was the only one of the five defendants still slated to go to trial March 31.

Scruggs and Backstrom will more than likely lose their license to practice law since they pleaded guilty to a felony. Balducci has already turned over his license.

End of a career
After establishing his small practice in Pascagoula, Scruggs gained national attention for earning millions of dollars from asbestos litigation and for his role in a multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the mid-1990s.

His meteoric rise in the legal profession and his sudden wealth was a story that could have been scripted by Hollywood — a fact emphasized when his case against the tobacco companies was made a central part of the 1999 movie “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. An actor portrayed Scruggs in the movie and some scenes were filmed at Scruggs’ home in Pascagoula.

Scruggs, whose brother-in-law is former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, moved his home and his practice from the Gulf Coast to Oxford about three years ago. He invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations to his office over looking the Square and in the new home he built around the corner from William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak.

Scruggs sued State Farm Insurance on behalf of hundreds of policyholders whose claims had been denied by insurance companies after their homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.

Scruggs put together a legal team, called the Scruggs Katrina Group, to represent the policyholders in the court battle against the insurance companies. One of the firms brought in to work with Scruggs was Jones, Funderburg, Sessums, Peterson & Lee, a law firm based in Jackson.

After the legal team reached a settlement with State Farm Insurance Cos. in January, a dispute over how the $26.5 million in legal fees would be distributed to the firms erupted between the Jones law firm and the other members of the Scruggs Katrina Group.

The Jones firm was kicked out of the legal team and, after attempts to resolve the compensation dispute failed, the Jones firm took the unusual step of filing a lawsuit against the other members of the legal team.

The Jones firm, lead by attorney John G. Jones, filed a civil lawsuit, Jones, et all. v. Scruggs, et al, in the Lafayette County Circuit Court in March 2007. The Jackson firm hired the Tollison Law Firm in Oxford to represent them in the litigation.

That’s when Scruggs and the other four men indicted in November 2007 allegedly hatched a plan to bribe Lackey to issue a ruling in this legal dispute in their favor, according to the indictment.

Not over yet
Both of the plea agreements entered this morning state that by pleading guilty, the two men are not free from being charged by other agencies — such as the State Attorney’s Office, or from being charged in other ongoing open investigations, although the government said this morning they do not know of any cases that Backstrom could be facing more charges.

But Scruggs is still being investigated in the alleged attempted bribing of Hinds County Court Judge Bobby DeLaughter.

According to court records, Scruggs used his influence with Lott to dangle the possibility of a federal judge appointment in front of DeLaughter if he ruled favorably in a lawsuit against Scruggs — Wilson v. Scruggs. Attorney Joey Langston has been indicted in that case and has pleaded guilty. He is awaiting sentencing. No other charges have been filed in that case thus far.

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