Absolutely amazing – What you can learn reading Wilkie’s “Fall of the House of Zeus”

In an interview with Tupelo journalist Patsy Brumfield appearing on Sunday’s NEMS360.com, “Zeus” author Curtis Wilke said,

“There were any number of subplots in the book that could be developed into bigger stories. I chose to concentrate on the Johnny Jones suit and the approach to Judge Lackey in order to keep a strong focus on one case. So Scruggs II, as the prosecutors called it, the case that sent Bobby DeLaughter to prison, does not get a full treatment in “Zeus.”

Wilke’s snapshot of Scruggs II, however, is more than sufficient for readers to see the big picture of the case and the influence it had on the outcome of Scruggs I.  A pretty picture it is not but it confirmed what had previously been rumored:  the legal team  representing Scruggs, Scruggs and Backstrom held a “mini-mock trial…to evaluate the strength of the prosecution’s case” – an exercise described on pages 293-294 as producing “unhappy results”:

“the defense…[of the charges related to the bribery of Judge Lackey]…had been overwhelmed  by the introduction of the second case….[the alleged bribery of Judge DeLaughter]…and the suggestion that Scruggs had a history of bribing judges.” (pg. 294)

Allegations of the bribery of Judge DeLaughter first surfaced in the Grand Jury testimony of Tim Balducci:

“Balducci’s information not only imperiled Langston and Peters, it exposed Scruggs to a second charge of bribing a judge.  This opened the door for the government to use the 404(b) provision to show that Scruggs had a predilection for criminal behavior.” (page 264)

However, during a hearing on the Scruggs motion to dismisss Scruggs I charges against Scruggs, Scruggs and Backstrom, attorney John Keker had a brief opportunity to cross-examine Balducci and “pounced on inconsistencies”:

“After Keker complete his questioning – which had been limited to five minutes by Judge Biggers – prosecutor Bob Norman opened a new line of inquiry to tie the government’s case to second bribery involving Judge Bobby DeLaughter.

He led Balducci to testify…[he]…had been privy previously to another matter in which Mr. Scruggs bribed another judge…

‘Your Honor,” Norman said to the judge, ‘that is the subject of our 404(b) motion…and I will leave that at this point.

Keker was not ready to abandon the subject and asked for permission to reexamine Balducci.  Judge Biggers gave him five minuets to do so.  The following colloquy took place (abbreviated version of full colloquy taken from transcript of hearing and quoted by Wilke pages 287-291):

…Was Judge Bobby Delaughter bribed in that case?

He was.

By whom?

By Dick Scruggs.

And was the bribe a money bribe?

No, sir.

What was the bribe that you’re referring to?

He was offered a federal judgeship or he was offer the influence of Mr. Scruggs’ brother-in-law, who was Senator Trent Lott…

So we can get it, what do you understand – Mr. Scrugg called Mr. Delaughter and said something?

No, sir, I’m saying Mr. Lott called Judge DeLaughter…

The colloquy and subsequent plea of Dick Scruggs in Scruggs II beg these questions: what did Scruggs know about the alleged bribery of Judge Delaughter and what is it that Scruggs did do? For the answer we, first,  turn to Wilke’s account of the role of Joey Langston:
Langston knew that he, too, would be targeted as soon as he heard the prosecutors play the 4040(b) card against his client Dick Scruggs…The government would eventually allege the trio – Langston…[Scruggs co-defendant in Scruggs I, Steve]…Patterson, and…[former Hinds County District Attorney and the unindicted co-between Ed]…Peters – divided equally a $3 million dollar payment from Scruggs.  Like so much in the case, it never was as simple as the government indicated…(page 264, emphasis added)
Indeed, it was not simple and even today, with “Zeus” in hand, Scruggs involvement in the alleged bribery of Judge Delaughter is not simple to explain:

They’re looking at the Wilson case…[Farese] said, referring to the Wilson v Scruggs lawsuit in Jackson.

Scruggs thought the litigation had been resolved satisfactorily.  Following his $17 million setback to Al Luckey and Charlie Merkel, he had taken the Wilson case out of Jack Dunbar’s hands and entrusted it to Langston, who had said he could draw upon his connections in Jackson to ensure Scruggs would not suffer another embarrassing defeat. Sure enough, a series of ruling in 2006 by state circuit judge Bobby Delaughter effectively limited Scruggs’s losses (page 247)…

A few days after the raid on Langston’s office…Langston told Scruggs the FBI was ‘looking at the Wilson case real hard’…The only person vulnerable, he said, might be Peters who could face income tax evasion charge if he failed to report the $50,000 payment he had gotten in cash after agreeing to get involved in the case.

Scruggs grew apprehensive.  He had authorized Langston to make payments to Peters for his assistance in the case, but he did not recall all of the details.  Nor did he remember the $50,000 in cash. (page 249).

I’m not a CPA like my blogging partner but I know enough math to figure out there’s a lot of money between the $50,000 payment Langston mentioned and $3,000,000 the government claimed Scruggs paid Langston, Patterson, and Peters.

The idea to use Peters in the Wilson v Scruggs case had actually come from Steve Patterson…at the time…[Patterson]… was still working for Langston’s firm…

Scruggs asked his financial advisors to determine an amount that represented “best case scenario” of his prospective cost in the case. They arrived at a figure of $2.5 million.  Negotiating through Langston, Scruggs proposed a reverse contingency fee”.  If the final judgment came in under $2.5 million, the Langston-Peters team could keep the difference.  If the judgment came in over $2.5 million, the former district attorney would get nothing …for  “representing…[Scruggs”s]…interests quietly outside the formal constraints of the court. (page 261)

Peter’s had asked for $50,000 up front – money that Balducci provided (page261) – but the only documentation of Peter’s communicating a request was the suggestion of DeLaughter’s interest in becoming a federal judge conveyed by Peters to Patterson; Patterson to Langston; and Langston to Scruggs (page 263).  Scruggs, in turn recommended DeLaughter to his brother-in-law, then Senator, Trent Lott, according to the account of the prosecutors’ interview with Lott (page 279):

“Lott insisted his discussion with Judge DeLaughter had been nothing more than a routine follow-up to Scruggs’ recommendation about an open judgeship.  Lott told the prosecutors that he did not know Scruggs had a case pending before Judge Delaughter.

He also reminded his visitors that DeLaughter never got the nomination.  Lott was also in a position to say that his call on March 29, 2006, came after DeLaughter had already made one decision favorable to Scruggs, and the process to fill the judgeship with another candidate was well under way before DeLaughter’s final decree.”

As I wrote when beginning this post, Wilkie’s snapshot “is more than sufficient for readers to see the big picture of Scruggs II”.  The “not pretty” picture, however, gets uglier when you consider the government’s very weak position and the resulting outcome.
Stay turned for part 2 of the “absolutely amazing” story of the “rise and ruin” of Dick Scruggs.

15 thoughts on “Absolutely amazing – What you can learn reading Wilkie’s “Fall of the House of Zeus””

  1. Pardon me for being obtuse, but will someone answer the following questions: (1) Why did “Dickie” Scruggs plead GUILTY to mail fraud in connection with his ADMITTED attempt(s) to bribe “Bobby” DeLaughter, and (2) Why did “Bobby” DeLaughter plead GUILTY to obstruction of justice for LYING to the FBI in connection with Scruggs’ attempts to BRIBE him? Thank you for answering these very simple questions. Ashton O’Dwyer.

  2. Thanks, bellesouth, but credit for the “fresh” perspective goes to Wilke.

    He also deserves credit for having the integrity to report a factual accounting while living in a community that wouldn’t accept any fact that didn’t fit its “story line”.

  3. Russell, that’s such a great question I’m going to answer with a short post – stand by but remember I’m a typing turtle.

  4. Integrity, he has, Nowdy. It’s a shame that some hateful bloggers have to reduce themselves to questioning his integrity. I have been reading Dixie by Curtis Wilkie and he has lived and experienced the inner workings of Mississippi as a journalist both before he left Mississippi (he was at Ole Miss during the riots regarding admission of James Meredith. Then went on for 20 years reporting for The Boston Globe. When he came back Delaughter and Peters were just indicting Byron De La Beck again. It’s not like he doesn’t know anything about all of these characters to write an excellent book of what went down. It’s not like he was all chummy chummy with Scruggs. It’s just as a journalist, he has crossed paths with Dickie before. Dickie obviously respected Wilkie enough to try to figure out the story, not just reiterate some devious scheme. You’ll see that he conducted over 200 interviews. It’s not like he was trying to be onesided at all. There are no endorsements.

  5. The book is chock full of absolutely documented facts! If anyone has a problem with the way that looks thats the problem of the reader. You can’t argue with facts. Don’t listen to The Noise.

  6. Hearsay, you say? It isn’t as though he is reporting that what they are saying is true, it’s just that they all said it/or did it. He’s a journalist contributing to a great source of Mississippi History for generations to come. He understands.

  7. I had a very close relationship with Steve Patterson from 1963-1965 when he was 12/14 years old. He was a very fine young man whom I had hoped to become a step-father to. I read the Fall of the House of Zeus and felt the author did a poor job in his description of Steve.
    I recently had a long phone conversation with Steve and I am still his friend and will never turn my back on him. THAT ISN’T WHAT FRIENDS DO TO FRIENDS, EXCEPT IN POLITICS!

  8. In the excerpt, I believe the Al Luckey mentioned is none other than Alwynn Luckey of Ocean Springs. His wife is Mississippi’s Republican National Committee Committeewoman, and a member of the RNC Budget Committee.

    1. Yep, same guy. I remember Luckey giving an interview to WLOX after Dick Scruggs copped his first plea deal. I should have nabbed it for posterity as it was that revealing.

      Nowdy always knew something wasn’t quite right. Like so many other Slabbed topics there are likely no good guys in that deal, including Patterson, whom I particularly dislike.

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