Appeals court refuses to vacate Zach Scruggs’ guilty plea

OXFORD — A federal appeals court has refused to vacate the 2008 guilty plea of Zach Scruggs, who was implicated as having knowledge of a judicial corruption scheme that toppled his father, plaintiffs’ lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs.

A three-judge panel from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the conviction in a ruling yesterday.

The younger Scruggs, a law partner with his father, pleaded guilty to failing to report a conspiracy to improperly influence a judge in a dispute with other lawyers over $26.5 million in legal fees.

He served a 14-month prison sentence and also lost his law license and paid a $250,000 fine. He argued that his guilty plea to misprision of a felony, or failing to report a crime, should be thrown out because his conduct didn’t constitute a crime in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that an anti-fraud law was improperly used to help convict former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling.

Scruggs’ attorney, Edward Robertson Jr., argued before the panel in July that the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Skilling case means that what Zach Scruggs did, “earwigging” a judge, or trying to improperly influence him, was unethical, but not a federal crime.

Scruggs claims he didn’t know the plot would include paying bribes to Judge Henry Lackey, who was cooperating with federal authorities.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Alexander said during that hearing that the evidence showed Zach Scruggs knew about the bribery plot.

Scruggs was appealing a 2011 ruling by U.S. District Judge Neal B. Biggers Jr., who concluded that a reasonable juror could find that the younger Scruggs knew about the bribery scheme “and helped to interpret and revise the bought order.”

Biggers cited an FBI recording of an eight-minute-long conversation on Nov. 1, 2007, between Scruggs and two other people at The Scruggs Law Firm’s offices in Oxford.

Scruggs’ father, a brother-in-law of former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who helped secure a multibillion-dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s, is serving a seven-year prison sentence for his roles in the plot to bribe Lackey and for a separate scheme to bribe former Hinds County Circuit Judge.

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