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