How a $50,000 Bribe Led to Scruggs' Downfall

A $50,000 bribe has landed one of America's top tort lawyers in prison. Mississippi-native Dickie Scruggs was sentenced Friday to five years behind bars. Journalist Peter J. Boyer, who profiled Scruggs in the May 19th issue of The New Yorker magazine, discusses the case.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

He's been called the master of the deal, lawyer Dickie Scruggs. But his deals have now landed him a stiff term in federal prison. He was convicted of bribing a Mississippi judge and Scruggs was sentenced to five years yesterday.

Scruggs is a Mississippi native, the driving force behind the state's successful lawsuits against big tobacco. More recently he attacked the insurance industry on behalf of homeowners affected by Hurricane Katrina. His cases have made him millions of dollars - actually, nearly a billion. So, some have been shocked that at $50,000 bribe would be his downfall.

Peter J. Boyer has profiled Dickie Scruggs and his tort tactics for the New Yorker magazine. He joins me now from his home. Welcome.

Mr. PETER BOYER (Writer, New Yorker Magazine): Hey, Andrea.

SEABROOK: So, Mr. Boyer, we'll get to the bribery in just a second. But first introduce us to this guy. He is just a larger-than-life character.

Mr. BOYER: He is, Andrea. And like so many such men he was self made. He was extremely innovative. In Mississippi there are an awful lot of good lawyers. Dickie was among the best partly because he was so good at exploiting the back road relationships. Dickie had this philosophy about the law. He called it the three-legged stool of litigation, only one leg of which - and I would suggest it was the shortest of the three legs - was actual litigation.

The other two pieces were the political piece and the public relations piece, and he completely understood those things. He was a very strong Democrat, but his brother-in-law was Trent Lott, the…

SEABROOK: Right.

Mr. BOYER: …you know, who was the Senate majority leader. He knew how to use political force from all sides and did so from the very beginning.

SEABROOK: And, you know, lest we make him sound like he was just an evil political operative. He donated lots of money to his alma mater. I mean, he was the guy that you walked into his office and asked for help, he'd give it.

Mr. BOYER: Oh, absolutely. You know, he was - it depends on how you knew Dickie Scruggs. If you were a lawyer for the tobacco companies, for example, you knew him as this ruthless, cutthroat, gentlemanly, courtly, but cutthroat guy who was in the end going to separate you from a big pile of money with a smile and a thank you, sir, at the end of the day.

If you were associated with the University of Mississippi, the great state school up in Oxford, if you knew Dickie in that context, you knew him as this almost a patron. There was something very old world about it. He had the big firm on the square there in oxford. And literally anybody could walk in and ask for a favor. And many of them came out with a smile on their face.

There were two Dickies - that was one. Of the other Dickie Scruggs was in fact the rapacious tort pirate that you hear about.

SEABROOK: A pirate in seersucker.

Mr. BOYER: That's actually a pretty good way to putting it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Let's get to the case that eventually landed Scruggs in prison. He was basically sued by another lawyer, a guy named Johnny Jones. Jones felt that Scruggs didn't pay him enough for some work he did, Jones did, on the Hurricane Katrina insurance cases.

Mr. BOYER: That's right.

SEABROOK: So then Jones files his complaint and the case is scheduled to go before a judge named Henry Lackey. Then tell us what happened.

Mr. BOYER: Well, Johnny was one of the people who had defended Dickie in another fees dispute earlier. And so he had particular insight to that particular way that Dickie had of bringing together the various forces in order to prevail. And some of these were completely above board, some of these methods were a little bit below board. Johnny knew it. He felt that he had been shortchanged and he believed - correctly as it turned out - that if he were able to threaten the exposure of Dickie's ways and means that Dickie would act.

He was hoping that Dickie would act to settle. As it turned out, Dickie ultimately acted to thwart the system and to tilt it his way.

SEABROOK: The thing that makes it so amazing is that it wasn't even that much money.

Mr. BOYER: Yeah.

SEABROOK: Here's a guy who has hundreds of millions of dollars, planes, boats…

Mr. BOYER: Yeah.

SEABROOK: …and he bribes a judge over a settlement of a couple million bucks.

Mr. BOYER: Well, that is the stuff of great drama, in this case tragedy. If it wasn't something in fairness to Scruggs that he set out to do, it was something that derived from the Scruggs way, which is to say there were a couple of lawyer types who wanted to be under the Scruggs Christmas tree, who wanted to do him a favor, who wanted to make this nasty fee dispute go away, who happened to know the judge in question.

And what began as a little bit of what they call down there ear-wigging, you know, getting to know the judge and trying to influence him, became an overt bribe. Dickie didn't know about it at first but at the end of the day he not only knew about it, approved it and agreed to participate in it.

SEABROOK: And up the ante from $40,000 to 50,000. That was…

Mr. BOYER: That's exactly right. And as it happened they picked the exact wrong guy, literally a central casting good judge - this white-haired deacon of the Baptist church who grows his own vegetables and delivers them on dewy mornings to the widow ladies in his hometown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOYER: And he almost immediately sensed that something was wrong and went to the Feds and the Feds were quite eager and willing to bring down Scruggs.

SEABROOK: Peter Boyer's article on Dickie Scruggs appeared in the May 19 issue of the New Yorker. Thanks very much for speaking with us, Peter Boyer.

Mr. BOYER: It was good to be with you.

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