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Okay, I just died and went to Heb’n

February 22, 2008

Why? Because yesterday li’l ol’ folo scored a link at my own favorite blog, Scott Horton’s No Comment (spelling-priss solidarity — W00T!).

As did I, Scott noted of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal coverage:

Whereas the Journal put the focus of the probe on the case before DeLaughter, my sources, though not disagreeing with the Journal, put it in Birmingham, Alabama.

Scruggs was facing trouble on another front. A federal judge in Alabama, William Acker, handed down a very strongly worded ruling in June in which he recommended that the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama [Alice Martin] prosecute Scruggs for the violation of a court order in some insurance litigation. The case was drawing a good deal of attention to Scruggs’s litigation tactics, which have widely been seen as pressing the outer boundaries of acceptable zeal, and clearly was troubling to Scruggs. Had Scruggs been seeking Lott’s intervention and help to bail himself out?

One thing is peculiar. Federal judges in the Northern District of Alabama didn’t want to have anything to do with the matter after Scruggs asked them to recuse themselves. And neither did the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham.

Here’s one scenario, which two senior law enforcement figures in Mississippi told me was “more than simply plausible.” The FBI had secured warrants to monitor Scruggs’s phone calls early in the course of the case, during the summer or early fall. In some of those conversations Dickie Scruggs asked for his brother-in-law’s help in fighting off Judge Acker’s attempts to have him prosecuted. Trent Lott picked up the phone and spoke with a few friends in the Justice Department–or perhaps even directly with a U.S. Attorney or two in Alabama, or a senator from Alabama–and asked them to lay off his misbehaving brother-in-law.

My bet is that the investigators are looking very carefully at whether the decision by the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham not to charge Dickie Scruggs had anything to do with intervention by Senator Lott.

Of course, the other point that the Journal failed to pick up on is that Lott had a history of intervening with prosecutors to protect his extremely wealthy brother-in-law. I documented this in connection with the prosecution brought against Paul Minor. No matter how you cut it, Dickie Scruggs comes out smack in the middle of that case, playing a substantial role. Yet he was not charged with anything, and indeed, prosecutors treated him with tremendous deference. The Biloxi Sun Herald quotes Lott as acknowledging having had discussions with the prosecutors about his brother-in-law’s case. Lott quickly corrected his comments as “a mistake.” But the circumstances surrounding the case leave many wondering just how mistaken the remarks might have been. Moreover, when an FBI agent working on the case started questioning why Scruggs had not been charged, the agent found himself quickly reassigned—to Guantánamo—where his expertise as a forensic accountant surely were of good service.

Agreed, Scott: those agents have scope and fodder a-plenty to check out on Trent Lott, and we might feel rather better about the post-Gonzales DoJ if that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Verve, thy name is Patsy

February 22, 2008

Well, if I’d seen Patsy Brumfield’s story first, I’d have made it the focus of today’s first post, ’cause it sure is more newsy-fun than Jerry Mitchell’s.

OXFORD – The trial site, Oxford, may be one of the few certainties for mega-litigator Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, his attorney-son Zach and their legal associate Sidney Backstrom – if they are tried as originally scheduled by Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers Jr. …

Patsy snags better quotes, too:

“This trial will be sensational,” predicted Jackson attorney Frank Trapp, representing Backstrom. “You’ve already said you’ll put Sen. (Trent) Lott on the stand. That will leave Mr. Backstrom over here accumulating all kinds of prejudice.”

and

“They will call Balducci with hearsay and Joey Langston and that’s going to be the end of it?” defense attorney John Keker asked rhetorically. “This is not on any planet I am knowledgeable about.”

Okay, y’all, snark at will . . .

Bless her, Tupelo’s own even reminds us who Zach Scruggs’s lawyer is: Kansas City’s victim in the U.S. Attorneys scandal:

Trapp and Todd Graves from Missouri, who represent Zach Scruggs, insisted their clients are in legal jeopardy by being tried with Dickie Scruggs. They said the government’s evidence is much heavier against the senior Scruggs and will hurt their clients by association. They also have nothing to do with the Wilson case, but will be hurt by it, they speculated.

Cute verb, innit?

Read the rest of this entry »

Jerry Mitchell retells yesterday in Oxford

February 22, 2008

In fine folo tradition, jim starts our day off with a tip on Jerry Mitchell’s story in the Clarion-Ledger, Scruggs prosecutors want Lott testimony:

OXFORD — Former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott will testify against his brother-in-law, noted lawyer Dickie Scruggs, at his upcoming judicial bribery trial – if federal prosecutors get their wish.

And U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran could be called as a defense witness.

That’s because prosecutors want to use evidence of other alleged “bad acts” by Scruggs at his March 31 trial – specifically an alleged Hinds County bribery scheme in 2006 involving Scruggs, Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter and others.

“That case is under active investigation of the Public Integrity Division of the Justice Department as we speak,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Dawson said in a hearing Thursday. …

Jerry recounts Tom Dawson’s statement that Lott isn’t a target, followed by Lott-aide Bret Boyles’ whew that “Lott’s office agrees with Tom Dawson’s comment.” Then he recalls Joey Langston’s guilty plea to scheming to get DeLaughter to rule in Dickie’s favor in Wilson v. Scruggs by telling him he’d be nominated for a federal judgeship.

In order to influence DeLaughter, Langston said he initially paid $50,000 in cash to DeLaughter’s close friend and former boss, one-time District Attorney Ed Peters.

Peters received that cash in an envelope and was told the cash wouldn’t be reported to the IRS, Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Norman said in Thursday’s hearing.

(So add tax-evasion to Ed Peters’ tab . . . )

Those involved in the scheme “wanted Bobby DeLaughter to … shade the law,” Norman said. “There was every reason to believe the Scruggs law firm would prevail in both cases, but that wasn’t good enough. They had to have an edge.” …

Scruggs’ lawyer, John Keker of San Francisco, suggested Thursday this scheme was something [Tim] Balducci and Langston “cooked up” on their own and that Scruggs knew nothing about this.

Read the rest of this entry »

Government moves for an anonymous, sequestered jury

February 21, 2008

The government has filed a Motion for an Anonymous Sequestered Jury. Anonymous here means no biographical information known to the Scruggs team pretrial.  This is based on the allegations of interference with the justice system (judicial bribery).  Rather than comment on it at length, I’ll just say this is a pretty intensifying move by the government.

h/t to Nancy in comments.

Motion Day 2: Afternoon motions (venue, severence)

February 21, 2008

Two motions to sever, Backstrom and Scruggs. The gravamen is prejudice. The first argument was from Zach Scruggs’s side. Trapp argued there is a huge spread between proof about Zach and Dick—only three thin threads about Zach, only if he is aware: Being present in the initial meeting, Zach being in the conference room when the order was delivered; may have been in the room with Balducci for a small part of the conversation when Balducci was acting as a government agent. There is a danger he may be convicted due to the weight of the evidence against the others.

Dawson argued for the government. When specifically asked about whether there is anything that links the 404(b) evidence to Zach, he did not answer. This is slightly odd, because there is a link.

Trapp: Only asked for severance from Dick Scruggs. Argued: Disparity of the amount of evidence, that there is limited evidence. He did a really nice riff on sweet potatoes. He said, “This is a term that has multiple meanings. Sometimes it means Vardaman sweet potatoes, sometimes it means the order, and sometimes it means money.” This got audience laughing. He was arguing hard and well that this is not a place where limiting instructions would work because of the flow of stuff coming in.

Then he said: “The trial within the trial will be sensational.” He mentioned headlines about Trent Lott and the sensational personalities. There is a tsunami of ill will in this case, and he indicated the gallery in the court room and the “bloggers’ desire for a conviction.” Judge Biggers said that the jury can be insulated from the gallery.

He argued that Mr. Backstrom is just a regular working lawyer, and if he did not have the good fortune to work for the Scruggs law firm, none of this would have happened. He said that he is not aware of a drop or scintilla of the 404 evidence that would apply to Mr. Backstrom. The judge seemed particularly interested in getting very clear, focused answers on this subject from the prosecution.

Dawson responded again, said these arguments are purely speculative and you don’t grant motions to sever on speculation. The judge asked direct questions about the 404(b) matters and whether there is other evidence or other witnesses that link to these defendants. Dawson didn’t answer directly, saying he is not required to give a witness list now.

Judge Biggers during all this closely questioned Tom Dawson about statements made earlier in Bob Norman’s presentation indicating that the 404(b) matters may not have been a crime. Dawson said it doesn’t matter whether Judge DeLaughter was corruptly influenced, and that it was enough to show bad acts with the intent to corruptly influence him. Judge Biggers asked questions heading toward the fact that Joey Langston has pled guilty to bribery relating to that—at one point saying that he hoped the government had facts to establish bribery, given that guilty plea. On further questioning about what the government was going to do about that matter, Dawson stated that Judge DeLaughter was before the Public Integrity Division of the Justice Department at this time.

Without ruling, Judge Biggers moved on to the change of venue motion. On this, Keker started out by saying that “I haven’t made any bets that you are going to grant this motion,” that he had made this in many cases and it rarely works, but what is different here is who is interested in the case. He mentioned the Clarion Ledger, Daily Journal, Oxford Eagle, and the student writing for the Daily Mississippian. He said this is the thing: People in Mississippi are interested in this case and people elsewhere aren’t.

He started quoting Legalnewsline. He said people are interested in this because it is a fall from grace, and a fall from grace of someone who lives in Mississippi. He described quotes from Gov. Barbour and Mississippi Supreme Court justices. He said the Wall Street Journal has run some articles, but that Louisiana, Tennessee or Texas would be different. He specifically argued that the difficulty about getting people who don’t know Judge Lackey (and cited an article in the Oxford Eagle about Judge Lackey) and how well known Trent Lott is in Mississippi.

If the judge didn’t grant it, they would be making some special requests about voir dire. The judge noted they had done this thorough research, and asked whether they found all opinions on the subject are negative. Keker said that the cases were impressionistic. Keker talked about Barbour again, and then the State Farm v. Hood case. Keker then said his associate has done all this research and found not one article saying “I don’t think he did it.”

Judge Biggers: “This is one of the most thoroughly researched briefs I have ever seen, but it’s hard for me to believe there were no statements” favorable to Dickie. The associate was allowed to come to the podium and talk about his research. Keker then took back over: What we found “was people piling on. Mr. Merkel. Mr. Tollison. The notion being at last he’s getting his comeuppance.” Keker says that Dickie’s friends are stepping back and seeing how it turns out.

At this point, Judge Biggers said, “If you had a preference, where would you have it?” Keker starts talking about New Orleans, and then anywhere.

Judge Biggers said, “I don’t know about the interest being only in Mississippi. I had lunch in Montana with several lawyers and they knew all about it. One asked whether the Grisham novel King of Torts is based on Scruggs. I know Grisham has denied that.” This then made an obvious segue—Oh, yeah! There was a positive remark. Judge Biggers said that “John Grisham’s opinion is respected in this area.”

When Keker sat down, and Dawson got up, Dawson said, “Well, he hasn’t offered to go to the Northern District of Alabama.” Keker stood up and said that nothing bad happened in the Northern District of Alabama and we’ll go there too. This was one of the few times that things got testy in the courtroom.

One message being delivered was that people in the area know and respect Judge Lackey, and we need the case moved to somewhere that isn’t true.

Dawson discussed the Fifth Circuit cases saying voir dire is the best method for dealing with these issues. He stated that all of the cases were state cases involving horrific crimes being tried in the county where the crime occurred. Judge Biggers noted that the Oklahoma bombing case had been moved. He asked if Dawson knew of any other federal cases that had been moved. Dawson described the North Mississippi Savings and Loan collapse case in the 1980s here, and that a jury had been seated by 1:00.

Dawson said there were several solutions about jury selection—anonymous jury, district wide jury, and others, and that they had not made a motion on that because it would be premature.

Keker reacted immediately against an anonymous jury, saying that would be prejudicial.

Trapp for Backstrom noted that Judge Lackey’s circuit court district constitutes six of the seven counties in this district.

Judge Biggers ruled. He said there is no evidence about how many people in this county subscribe to the Clarion Ledger. There is no information in the record about how many subscribe to the Tupelo Journal. He says most people get their information now from television and there isn’t evidence of huge television coverage. There is no evidence of what percentage of these jurors are exposed to the coverage and no evidence that these defendants can’t get a fair trial. There are over a million people in the northern district of Mississippi.

There is additional information to be given on the motion to suppress, and on 404(b) and the motion to sever, he is going to rule on next Tuesday.

Keker then submitted a jury questionnaire for the court’s consideration. Keker then wanted to talk about open issues: Limine motions, housekeeping, timing of Jenks material. Keker said there is housekeeping stuff and they may need to be another hearing date. He said, depending on the 404(b) ruling, everything taken out of Joey Langston’s office is discoverable.

Motions Day 2: Severance under advisement and Change of Venue denied

February 21, 2008

UPDATE: I posted a mistake here.  The judge took the motion to sever under advisement.

The motion for a change of venue was denied. More later.

Shelton: the dysjustice continues

February 21, 2008

Well, here we are at Thursday afternoon again, and for the tenth week in a row since the Mississippi Supreme Court received from the state Bar the full-throated recommendation that J. Keith Shelton be reinstated immediately to the practice of law — at 1:30 PM when the week’s worth of decisions were announced, they got nuttin’.

True, Chief Justice Smith has been in the hospital this week, but that didn’t stop the Court’s flow of opinions. [You have to wait a few seconds after the page appears for the list to populate (it’s on the right side), but eventually the most recent “hand-down list” (today’s, 2/21/08) appears. When it does, click on “Submit.”] Twenty of them came down today.

I wonder how long those 40 parties waited for justice — no way for us to know without more research than we’d be wise to spend multiple unbillable hours on. But I’ll tell you what:

What’s continuing to happen to Keith Shelton I no longer call mere “injustice.” Now I call it “dysjustice” — as in dysfunction. Your Bar is still being deprived of a good colleague and your state of a good lawyer.

How do y’all feel, and what might you be willing to say — to whom — about that?

Trent Lott isn’t Dickie’s ONLY big Republican

February 21, 2008

With thanks to an anonymous but alert reader, may I direct your attention to another sizeable national Republican name in Dickie Scruggs’s orbit — in fact, this one rather deep into Dickie’s pocket? Maybe I better wait for a sec, while y’all go run find bandannas to tie ’round yo’ haids — let’s not have any jaws broken on floors around here.

(twiddles thumb-petals, hums)

Okay, y’all strapped up and in?

Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to Grover Norquist? Yepper, sez here in the April 14, 2006, TPMMuckraker:

I guess everyone has their price. For Grover Norquist, it was $4.3 million.

Two weeks ago, Grover Norquist‘s non-profit Americans for Tax Reform was exposed in The Boston Globe as a lobbying front – maybe you missed it. The piece had the misfortune to land on a busy news day (Tony Rudy pled guilty), but, man, is it good.

For years, journalists have been trying to get their hands on ATR’s donor list, to no avail. But the Globe finally got it, and found, as many have suspected for quite awhile, that “contributors include an array of special interests ranging from tobacco companies to Indian tribes to a Las Vegas casino.” ATR is a big-time lobbying firm posing as a nonprofit. But that’s not even the good part.

The biggest contributor to ATR was Richard Scruggs, a Democratic lawyer from Mississippi. He put in $4.3 million. What was he after? …

Toddle on over to The Mucker and read on . . .

Motions hearing, day 2: the motion to dismiss counts 2, 3, and 4 is denied.

February 21, 2008

The judge this morning took up two of the remaining motions:  The motion to exclude other-crime evidence, that is, the bribery of Judge DeLaughter (that is how the prosecutors are referring to it in court); and an argument to dismiss counts 2, 3, and 4 of the indictment, which is basically an argument about jurisdiction and the meaning of a federal statute involving corruption in use of federal or government funds.

The first motion (other-crime evidence) took up most of the morning, and included a lot of interesting facts about the effort to bribe Judge DeLaughter.  I will post more about that later.

The questions on the second motion had to do with the way expenditure of money related to the crime: whether Judge Lackey as a circuit judge uses federal funds in a way that fits the statute, or whether there was money spent such as a filing fee that meets the statute.  The arguments were handled on that one by Jan Little from Keker’s firm and Asst US Attorney Sanders.  They both did excellent and clear arguments on a really dry (uh, boring) topic.

After a brief recess after 11:00, the judge overruled the motion to dismiss, citing a couple of Fifth Circuit case as controlling.  The statute did not require the government to prove the bribe would have a demonstrable effect on federal funds.

The court then recessed until one, at which time it will take up the two motions to sever and the motion to change venue.


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