Prominent Mississippi trial attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, the brother-in-law of outgoing GOP Sen. Trent Lott, was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges that he and four other men tried to bribe a Mississippi state court judge.
According to the 13-page indictment, Scruggs and three other attorneys -- including Lott's nephew Zach -- attempted to bribe Mississippi Third Circuit Court Judge Henry L. Lackey with at least $40,000 in cash.
Lackey was assigned to hear a lawsuit in which Scruggs' firm was named as a defendant in a dispute involving $26.5 million in attorneys' fees stemming from a court settlement with State Farm Insurance over Hurricane Katrina claims.
The indictment alleges that the bribe was intended to resolve the case in Scruggs' and his firm's favor. Also charged was Sidney A. Backstrom, an attorney at Scruggs' firm; Timothy R. Balducci, a New Albany, Miss., lawyer; and former State Auditor Steven A. Patterson, an employee of Balducci's law firm.
Neither Scruggs nor an attorney for the firm, Joey Langston, returned telephone messages seeking comment. Langston does not work at The Scruggs Law Firm.
Lott's office did not respond to a request for comment. Lott is not named in the indictment, and has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Lott, the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate, announced Monday he was resigning his seat after 35 years on Capitol Hill. Lott's decision to leave Congress came one year after he won re-election to his fourth term.
Scruggs, long a power player in Mississippi legal circles, rose to prominence after securing huge verdicts for plaintiffs in asbestos litigation, and from his role in brokering a multibillion dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s.
He later represented hundreds of Gulf Coast homeowners -- including Lott -- whose claims were denied by insurance companies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Lott's home in Pascagoula was destroyed by the storm.
The case at the center of the bribery allegations involves a fee dispute between Scruggs' firm and an attorney, John Jones, who did work on behalf of Katrina plaintiffs.
According to the indictment, the five defendants met at Scruggs' Oxford, Miss. office in mid-March to discuss the scheme. On March 28, Balducci allegedly traveled to Calhoun County, Miss. to meet with the judge in order to make "an overture" to resolve the lawsuit "favorably to the defendant Richard 'Dickie' Scruggs and The Scruggs Law Firm."
The indictment says that Lackey immediately reported the bribery scheme to the FBI, and began cooperating with federal authorities.
In May, Balducci allegedly had a conversation with Lackey where he said "for over the last five or six years there, there are bodies buried that, that you know, that [Scruggs] and I know where...where are, and, and, my, my trust is his, mine in him and his i mine."
Between September 27 and November 1, Balducci allegedly made three cash payments to Lackey, returning from the last meeting with a court order favorable to the defendants.
"We paid for this ruling; let's be sure it says what we want it to say," Balducci told Zach Scruggs and Backstrom, according to the indictment.
On Tuesday FBI agents searched Scruggs' law office in Oxford, Miss., removing copies of a computer hard drive.
A statement issued by the FBI office in Jackson, Miss. said the search was "in furtherance of an ongoing investigation," according to the Associated Press.
Over the years Scruggs has given generously to the Democratic Party and its candidates. In March he donated $28,500 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. This election cycle he has given to candidates from both parties, including Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del.