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Business community watching, waiting as judicial bribery probe widens

MBJ Staff Writer

In two months, Mississippi’s still-unfolding judicial bribery case has brought to life a sequence of events that previously would have been reserved for the active imagination of a novelist or the aggressive paranoia of a conspiracy theorist.
Six men, including one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful plaintiff’s attorneys in U.S. history, were charged with attempting to bribe a state circuit court judge. Three of the charged have already pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the government’s ongoing investigation. One of the three to have already admitted his guilt is Steve Patterson, a former Mississippi state auditor.
Patterson and attorneys Timothy Balducci and Joey Langston are the centerpieces of the government’s investigation that began when Balducci attempted to bribe Circuit Judge Henry Lackey last year. Lackey was presiding over a lawsuit between Scruggs and another group of attorneys over fees collected after a settlement of one of the insurance lawsuits after Hurricane Katrina. Lackey reported Balducci’s actions to federal authorities and began cooperating in a sting operation. The first indictments against Scruggs, his son Zach Scruggs, their law partner Sidney Backstrom, Balducci and Patterson were issued by a federal grand jury in Oxford November 28.
Langston, who had represented Scruggs in the lawsuit over attorneys’ fees, wasn’t indicted immediately. He pleaded guilty earlier this month, shortly after federal agents served a search warrant at his Booneville office. Court documents related to his plea show that he admitted culpability in a separate attempt to bribe Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter.
Scruggs and the other attorneys had made their fortunes winning huge judgments against Big Tobacco, HMOs, the insurance industry and in asbestos litigation.
It was because of the work of Scruggs and others like him that the tort reform movement took hold among business groups and trade associations. After years of lobbying by special interest groups and organizations that said Mississippi’s economic development future was nonexistent without it, tort reform earned passage through the Mississippi Legislature in 2004.

‘What were they thinking?’
Mississippians for Economic Progress (MFEP) was one of the groups that pushed hardest for tort reform. Lex Taylor, chairman of MFEP, said what’s happened since the original indictments were handed down has been one shock after another.
“My first thought was, ‘What were they thinking?’” Taylor said. “It’s everybody’s nightmare. It’s disturbing. It’s scary to the foundation.”
Prior to the passage of tort reform, Mississippi had a reputation as one of the least friendly business climates in the country. “Jackpot Justice” was a favorite term used to describe the litigation process that made plaintiffs’ attorneys wealthy and forced employers and doctors to either close their doors or pay high-dollar premiums to their insurers for liability coverage. Groups like MFEP were desperate to clean up the state’s image as a hellhole for business and industry and the medical community. Gov. Haley Barbour, after his first election in 2003, made tort reform one of his top priorities for the 2004 legislative session.
“We took two steps forward (with tort reform), going from the laughingstock of the nation, a pariah, to passing the most comprehensive tort reform in the country,” Taylor said. “I think at the end of the day, (the prosecution) will go to show the state is trying to put its best foot forward and show that a business, a doctor in a med mal case or whoever the defendant in a civil matter its will receive a fair hearing in a court of law.”
Van White, president of the Business and Industry Political Education Committee (BIPEC), said the specter of judicial bribery should not deter an employer looking to set up shop in Mississippi.
“ … BIPEC is following the case and like most law-abiding individuals and organizations, BIPEC supports the rule of law and the need for honor and integrity of the sworn officers of the court, as all attorneys pledge to a standard of higher conduct with their admission oath to the Bar.
“BIPEC trusts that the overwhelming majority of the Mississippi legal community follows the rule of law and professional conduct and that prospective businesses looking to locate in Mississippi will find our state a competitive and honest business environment.”

Validation, vindication?
For his part, Taylor said he and MFEP feel their efforts to make tort reform a reality are validated, and that the arguments against the legislation have now been rendered hollow.
“Our hopes are that all involved will be exposed and expelled. Our whole effort was to put fairness and balance back into the process, to where both parties would have a fair chance in court. This is confirming the need for fairness.
“One of the things we were trying to educate the public on was the rhetoric of the plaintiff’s attorneys — always telling folks that they were out for the common man, they stood up to big business. The public needed to know who was telling them that. This confirms that they were out for themselves and not the common man.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@gmail.com .


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