`King of Torts’ Cops a Plea

JACKSON, Miss. – Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, the legendary trial lawyer who made Big Business tremble every time he set foot in court, pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring to bribe a judge – a crime that will almost surely send him to prison and perhaps spell the end of his storied legal career.

Federal prosecutors are asking for the maximum of five years behind bars for the 61-year-old Scruggs, the multimillionaire “King of Torts” who combined a shrewd legal mind and the aw-shucks charm of a Southern country lawyer to extract billion-dollar settlements from the tobacco and asbestos industries, where only the best mesothelioma lawyers are able to work for the expected result.

He could also lose his license to practice law.

Scruggs and another lawyer in his firm, Sidney Backstrom, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud for offering a $50,000 cash bribe to a Mississippi judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over legal fees from a Hurricane Katrina insurance lawsuit.

In return for Scruggs’ guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop several other counts against him, including fraud. No sentencing date was set.

Scruggs’ son and law partner, Zach, also is charged in the case but did not enter a plea and is expected to go to trial.

For months, Scruggs appeared intent on fighting the charges, and many reporters who had closely followed the case were caught off-guard by the plea bargain. Scruggs folded after two of his co-defendants turned on him, one of them secretly tape-recording him for the FBI.

Federal prosecutors refused to comment, and Scruggs’ attorneys did not immediately return calls.

A giant of the nation’s plaintiffs’ bar, Scruggs was a chief architect of the $206 billion nationwide tobacco settlement in the 1990s, working with whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco company scientist. The actor Colm Feore played Scruggs in the 1999 movie about the case, “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

After Katrina struck in 2005, Scruggs sued insurance companies on behalf of hundreds of homeowners whose claims were denied.

Many industries that have tangled with Scruggs regard him as a buccaneer, a shakedown artist with a law degree.

Scruggs has been “the bane of Wall Street,” and leaders of some of the companies he sued might take satisfaction in his downfall, said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor and authority on legal ethics. He described Scruggs as “an exceptionally prominent American lawyer with astonishing success and wealth from law practice.”

Scruggs was indicted along with his son and three associates in November.

They were accused of conspiring to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey, who was overseeing a dispute between Scruggs and other lawyers over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Katrina cases. Lackey reported the bribe overture to the FBI and worked undercover.

Two of the men indicted, attorney Timothy Balducci and former Mississippi State Auditor Steve Patterson, pleaded guilty and began working with the prosecution.

Balducci admitted to the FBI that he paid Lackey $50,000 in cash and said he did so at the behest of the Scruggses and Backstrom. Balducci also wore a wire and recorded incriminating statements from Scruggs.

Scruggs lives in Oxford and flies to and from legal engagements around the South in his personal jet. The Mississippi native is also supremely well-connected politically as both the brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and a major contributor to Democrats.

A graduate of the University of Mississippi, he is one of the school’s largest donors. The music department building at Ole Miss bears his name.

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