We are just finishing up our first day at the Legal Technology Leadership Summit, our tech conference aimed at in-house counsel. So far it has been a great success. We’ve had no earthquakes or hurricanes — just a passing swarm of lovebugs (seriously), which are now lying dead on my balcony.
This morning, we kicked off with a keynote session from Alan Lange and Tom Dawson, the authors of Kings of Tort (affiliate link), a chronicle of one of the legal profession’s more infamous criminals. It’s actually not that specific to technology, although it does relate to the world of in-house counsel.
Keep reading for an inside look at the politically connected Southern gentleman who transformed from David to Goliath, conspired to bribe a judge, and made many an in-house lawyer’s life miserable…
Mississippi attorney Dickie Scruggs gained a lot of money, power and fame through his roles in multimillion-dollar asbestos, tobacco and post-Katrina settlements. Remember The Insider with Russell Crowe? It was those lawsuits.
Scruggs and his associates ostensibly fought for the common man against large corporations, but as authors Tom Dawson and Alan Lange explained this morning, “They became what they abhorred.” In 2008 and 2009, Scruggs pleaded guilty to conspiracy and to mail fraud.
Dawson was lead prosecutor in the Scruggs cases. Lange manages Yallpolitics.com, a Southern politics blog that exploded in popularity due to its Scruggs coverage.
They explained that Scruggs’s downfall began when, through one of his business partners, he tried to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry Lackey with $40,000, so that Judge Lackey would resolve a fee dispute in Scruggs’s favor. The judge went to the FBI and allowed his chambers to be bugged. He also agreed to play the part of a corruptible public figure.
Lackey had a pacemaker, Dawson told us. It went off during the first payment. If it hadn’t worked, the shock would have put the septuagenarian judge into cardiac arrest.
“He would’ve done a header on the desk,” Dawson said.
When it was finally time to nab Tim Balducci, the Scruggs colleague who delivered the money, authorities pulled him over as if they were conducting a routine traffic stop, came to his car window, and asked him, “How do you want to spend the next five years?”
They managed to “turn him in place,” as Dawson put it. Balducci got wired up, and the same day went back to Scruggs’s office to have incriminating conversations with everyone involved — including Scruggs himself. Balducci asked about who would handle an additional bribery payment, and Scruggs uttered five fatal words: “I’ll take care of it.” Boom goes the dynamite.
The crazy thing is this wasn’t an isolated incident. Lange and Dawson claim that Scruggs ran his practice for years through intimidation and sketchy ethics, by forcing companies into unfriendly jurisdictions, creating public-relations debacles for them, and inducing them to settle before trial — for large sums. Although Scruggs had a reputation as a great “trial lawyer,” he was a dealmaker rather than a courtroom lawyer. “Going to court was the last thing he did,” Lange said of Scruggs.
In the second criminal case against him, Scruggs allegedly asked his brother-in-law, Trent Lott (you know, the former Senate Majority Leader), to make a courtesy call to another judge handling one of Scruggs’s cases — and to discuss a federal judgeship that DeLaughter coveted. This had the effect of communicating to Judge DeLaughter that his career advancement depended on how the Scruggs case turned out. Allegedly Lott didn’t know what was really going on. (During Q&A, our intrepid colleague Elie Mystal asked, “Lott didn’t know anything? Really?” To which Dawson replied, “Nothing that we could prove.”)
Lange said he has talked to Fortune 500 general counsels who say of Scruggs and his colleagues, “You will not believe what we know about these guys — what is in a sealed file that will never see light of day, what they did to us.”
At a panel later in the morning, an in-house attorney for W.R. Grace mentioned her own experience with Scruggs and asbestos litigation: “I litigated in Mississippi, and it was a hellhole jurisdiction.”
Dawson said Scruggs’s M.O. was: If you see me coming, get out your checkbook. You can’t win in my courts. Because of his generous contributions to judicial campaigns, many state judges were favorably disposed towards him.
He didn’t go down easily. To fight the charges against him, Scruggs hired 23 lawyers (including the high-powered John Keker, of Keker & Van Nest). The prosecution had three attorneys.
Apparently Scruggs & Co. still haven’t given up, even from prison. Scruggs is appealing his guilty plea, and he uses the same PR firm President Obama used regarding the war in Afghanistan.
“‘These people never give up. If you don’t remember anything else, remember that,” Dawson said. And only half-joking, he continued, “‘They won’t quit until judicial bribery becomes socially acceptable.”
Dickie Scruggs sounds like such a nice guy. I’m sure he’s popular in jail.
In any event, stay with us this week for more coverage from the Legal Technology Leadership Summit.
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com.