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The Fifth Circuit holds that Scruggs’s guilt of bribing DeLaughter was “overwhelmingly establishe[d]”

We agree with the district court in concluding that the record overwhelmingly establishes the existence of a corrupt bribery agreement between Scruggs and DeLaughter.

Fifth Circuit opinion in United States v. Scruggs

An interesting thing about the post-conviction efforts by Zach Scruggs to set aside his plea in Scruggs I and his father in Scruggs II is that these proceedings allowed first a trial and then Fifth Circuit opinions that lay out as clearly as anything I’ve read the facts establishing the guilty of the parties involved in each scheme.  One would hope this would put to a rest efforts that have been made to cloud up the record or pretend away facts in those prosecutions.

Of course, one’s hopes are often dashed.

In any event, the Fifth Circuit provides an excellent brief account of the bribing of Judge DeLaughter.

Scruggs made both a name and a fortune as a plaintiffs’ attorney in asbestos and tobacco litigation. Along the way, he became entangled in many fee-sharing disputes with co-counsel, one of which resulted in a lawsuit filed by Robert Wilson in the Circuit Court of Hinds County, Mississippi (“the Wilson Case”). Robert “Bobby” DeLaughter, best known first for successfully prosecuting Byron De La Beckwith for murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers, sat on the Circuit Court of Hinds County, where he was assigned the Wilson Case and his path crossed with Scruggs.

Scruggs wanted a sure thing in the Wilson Case, having recently lost a similar fee fight. As the presiding judge, DeLaughter could put his finger on the scales. DeLaughter coveted a federal Article III judgeship more than anything else; as the brother-in-law of then-United State Senator Trent Lott, Scruggs could influence the person who sent candidates to the President. In early 2006, Scruggs retained Ed Peters, a close friend and mentor of DeLaughter’s, as a secret go-between who conveyed an offer: If DeLaughter would help Scruggs win the Wilson Case, Scruggs would recommend DeLaughter to Lott for a district court judgeship.

DeLaughter kept his end of the bargain: When Scruggs badly needed a trial continuance, DeLaughter entered, verbatim, a scheduling order prepared by one of Scruggs’s attorneys, despite having disclaimed input from either party. DeLaughter also reviewed yet-to-be-filed motions for Scruggs, advising how he would rule and which arguments needed work.

During 2006, three judicial vacancies opened on Mississippi federal district courts. In March 2006, after being passed over for nomination to one of those seats, DeLaughter relayed his dissatisfaction and concern that “he was doing his part of the bargain and that . . . Scruggs was not going to fulfill his part of the deal.” Immediately thereafter, Scruggs had Senator Lott call DeLaughter. Although the record suggests that Lott did not say that DeLaughter was being considered, DeLaughter nonetheless came away with the impression that he was in the running for the seat.

Mollified that Scruggs was keeping his end of the bargain, DeLaughter continued secretly to tilt the scales in the Wilson Case. When Wilson filed a potentially dispositive motion asking DeLaughter to quantify the amount of fees Scruggs still owed, Scruggs’s attorneys did not know whether to oppose the motion and pursue a full trial or to agree to submit the quantification issue to the judge. DeLaughter assured them that Scruggs would win the quantification motion, and he did. After faxing a preview of his order to Scruggs’s counsel, DeLaughter held that Scruggs owed no more than he had already paid and denied Wilson’s motion for reconsideration without comment. But the quantification order was so favorable that even Scruggs’s attorneys worried that it could not be affirmed on appeal, so Scruggs settled the Wilson Case before appeal with the help of DeLaughter, who revealed Wilson’s confidential settlement position.

These machinations came to light when members of Scruggs’s legal team began cooperating with the government’s investigation of an unrelated judicial bribery scheme.

Pretty straightforward.  And anyone who followed the oral argument in the Fifth Circuit will find little of surprise in the Fifth Circuit Opinion.  First, the court states that the opinion in Zach’s case resolves the question of whether Skilling creates a jurisdictional defect in these prosecutions.  It does not.  Second, because lots of folks had raised the Skilling issue before that case was decided, Scruggs was not excused from failing to raise it.  Third, he failed to prove he was innocent, and this bribery scheme was not protected by the First Amendment.  The court repeatedly cites the First Circuit case in U.S. v. George in footnotes.  That’s the case about which Scruggs counsel professed to be unaware at oral argument.

h/t Anderson.


18 comments to The Fifth Circuit holds that Scruggs’s guilt of bribing DeLaughter was “overwhelmingly establishe[d]”

  • Ben

    So … when does Peters get indicted?

  • PostHoleDigger

    Hang on there Ben! Ed Peters be innocent until proven guilty. Get back to me when you have some shred of proof and then I can tell you why you are wrong and Ed will never face the muzac.

  • Msbornmsbred

    When will Scruggs have to go back to jail?

  • NMC

    Ed Peters will never face the music because he got an immunity deal for spilling his guts. His punishment was surrendering his law license and agreeing to testify, which, ultimately, he did before the grand jury and by making either two or free (from memory) FBI interviews. He was excused from testifying at the hearing in Scruggs II.

    But anyone who followed Scruggs II or who has followed Eaton Corp. v. Frisby would, I think, have a hard time sustaining the notion that there was not one shred of proof against Peters. There was carloads.

  • Yah, Peters walked just because the Feds didn’t want him. Arguably he was key: would DeLaughter have folded without Peters’ testimony? Would he and Scruggs have copped to pleas? Assuming I even remember all this correctly.

  • NMC

    Actually, he was the key to bringing in Langston, not DeLaughter. He was willing to dump all over Langston but was still-semi-sorta covering for DeLaughter (his testimony was– “oh, he let me work him like a sock-puppet, but he got nothing for it. Really!” More or less). Langston knew that he was going to face Balducci from one end and Peters from the other, and that the orders and faxes were going to corroborate their story, not his. And so he came in. The prospect of Langston etc. as 404(b) other crime proof was critical to folding up Scruggs.

    I think DeLaughter knew to the end that Peters was not going to tell the story straight (and didn’t have to– he had immunity and had not told it in a way that nailed DeLaughter to begin with!). The double-bind that caught him was that count in the indictment that he’d lied to the FBI, which he had, without doubt. He was a sure thing to go down for that, and likely to go down for the whole thing, even with his buddy Peters saying he’d got nothing out of the deal.

    This was I suspect very frustrating to DeLaughter’s Chicago lawyer, who was trying with all his might to be the first the the supreme court with the Skilling issue. You know that Scalia dissent from denial of cert that was one of the pieces of evidence that people were raising the issue pre-Skilling even though Scruggs had not? DeLaughter’s lawyer was on that cert petition, and thought this was a case that was a natural to bring that issue up.

    I think this comment may be far too insidery. If anyone so notes, I’ll try to expand.

  • PostHoleDigger

    Sorry NMC, tongue planted firmly in cheek. I agree with you that there is a carload of evidence of wrongdoing in the Eaton case – and I am referring to a railroad freight car and not a mini-cooper. Unfortunately however, there have been no criminal charges to be seen. Peters, Delaughter, and Eaton have diddled the justice system to a fair-thee-well.

  • Ben

    I don’t know … and I’m not going to the trouble of looking it up … but I suspect the feds offered Peters “use” or “derivative use” immunity, arising from the DeLaughter-Scruggs-Langston rats’ nests. I’m confident Peters will face nothing adverse from that. But as for Eaton … whassup with that? It appears … just an opinion, not a claimed statement of fact … that Peters is up to his gunwales in “involvement” there. Anything there left to watch?

  • Thanks for the clarification; I’m reminded that I used to know the fine points of the Plame affair, and can’t recall any of that either now ….

  • ThirdSouth

    This doesn’t mean Dickie, Zach and Sid were “actually guilty,” does it? If so, is it a bar to them writing a book? What about Trent Lott? Could he write a book and exonerate them all?

  • What’s there for Trent to write? I’m sure his position is the same as Corporal Klink.

  • On the one hand, it seems insane for Scruggs to have mentioned his corrupt purpose to Lott. It would’ve been so easy just to go “hey, bro-in-law, Bobby’s a great judge, the Senate will love his Beckwith reputation, you should give him some thought.”

    OTOH, the date of Lott’s announcing his resignation is just too precious. Nov. 26 – Lott announces resignation. Nov. 27 – feds raid Scruggs firm. I suppose it could be a coincidence.

    … Btw, Colonel, Klink is a fellow colonel.

    … I hadn’t realized that Werner “Klink” Klemperer was the son of the conductor Otto (and a cousin of the diarist Victor), nor that the actors who played Klink and Schultz were of Jewish descent. Wack, man.

  • NMC

    CRS, I think you may be remembering Srgt. Shultz.

  • Hootie Dasher

    The catharsis appears to be nearing its end. Is there anything else remaining? Remember the rumors of 52 targets of investigation about the time the indictments were handed down?

  • Yes, I think it was Shultz instead of Klink who knew “nothing.”

    I doubt very seriously that Lott knew ahead of time of Scrugg’s plans. But I do think he got a heads up on the impending raids and just decided it would be better to retire. For him to have played any role at all in the whole mess was likely a career-ender for him insofar as running the Senate.

    Also, if I remember correctly, he was able to begin lobbying immediately without waiting two years or whatever. If he had left the Senate a week later his lobbying would have been restricted. Am I right on this?

  • NMC

    About December 15 (he left the very end of Nov) those changes went into place, CRS. You are right about that.

    His resignation was too coincidentally timed given all the interactions here for me to be willing to believe it was not connected.

    Hootie, Eaton v. Frisby is not done, although it is headed that way. The Scruggs criminal cases are now at an end (except that Dickie Scruggs will I’m sure go for cert and may en banc rulings). So we are getting very near the end.

    The 52 targets thing seems pretty likely to have been just a rumor.

  • Fred

    Y’all are being too nice about Lott’s connection. Besides the “coincidence” of Lott’s retirement announcement and the Scruggs raids, ons e must also throw into the mix Lott’s visit with his other “former singing Senator” AG Ashcroft in August. According to AG’s calendar was a visit with Lott & Scruggs – no staff members were present according to my memory of the incident at the time. Story at the time was that Lott was looking for a deal for his BIL.

  • BlackBear

    If you have the chance to talk to anyone who was in Lott’s office at the time, they will tell you that his resignation was a hurried mess. He’s as dirty as they come.

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