OXFORD (WLOX) -- After years of crusading for shipyard workers, smokers and Katrina victims, Mississippi's most famous lawyer pleaded guilty on Friday to "conspiracy to bribe a judge". Scruggs and fellow attorney Sidney Backstrom both pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe a circuit court judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over Katrina legal fees.
Prosecutors says they'll ask that Backstrom serve two and a half years in prison and recommend a five year sentence for Scruggs.
It's not official, but a former president of the Mississippi Bar Association says Scruggs and Backstrom have, in effect, already lost their ability to practice law in our state. Biloxi attorney Don Dornan says the Bar Association automatically suspends a lawyer's license any time he or she is convicted or pleads guilty to a crime.
"In 2002, the Supreme Court amended the rules the provide that if any attorney is convicted or pleads guilty to a crime involving bribery or interference with the administration of justice then that attorney would be ineligible to have his license reinstated," said Dornan. "So any lawyer who is convicted or pleads guilty of that type of crime would not be able to return to the practice of law."
Dornan says the bribery pleas are a blight on the judicial system. He says the pubic needs to know that people who engage in that type of behavior will be dealt with harshly.
Scruggs' son and law partner, Zach, did "not" enter a plea. He is still scheduled to go to trial March 31st.
An FBI search of Dickie Scruggs law offices in Oxford on November 27th was the first sign of trouble for the famed attorney. At the time Scruggs' lawyer downplayed the search. A day later Dickie Scruggs, Zach Scruggs, Sidney Backstrom, former State Auditor Steve Patterson and lawyer Timothy Balducci surrendered to federal authorities in Memphis. All pleaded not guilty of trying to bribe Third District Circuit Court Judge Henry Lackey with $50 thousand cash.
The indictment said Scruggs and his associates wanted Judge Lackey to rule in their favor in a civil lawsuit against Scruggs' firm. Judge Lackey reported the bribery attempt to the federal investigators.
In a news conference following the indictment U.S. Attorney Jim Greenlee said " Attempted bribery of a circuit judge, strikes at the heart of our judicial system."
Court papers named Balducci as the person who approached Judge Lackey to offer the bribe on Scruggs behalf. The indictment also detailed recorded conversations between the parties discussing the bribery offer. Days after his 'not guilty' plea, Timothy Balducci did a 180 degree turn and pleaded 'guilty'. He also agreed to cooperate with federal investigators. Steve Patterson struck a deal with prosecutors in January.
The three remaining defendants filed motion after motion to get the March 31st trial delayed or moved out of Mississippi. Sidney Backstrom asked twice to be tried separately from the Scruggs and even Zach Scruggs tried to have his case tried separately from his father's case. The judge denied all of those motions.
Dickie Scruggs' last legal maneuver, pleading guilty, did not surprise coast criminal defense attorney Tim Holleman. Holleman said after reading transcripts of recorded conversations he felt there would be pleas before the March 17 deadline for deals.
Holleman said Zach's case "could" be impacted by what happened because law partner Sidney Backstrom is getting a slightly different plea deal than Dickie Scruggs.
"Mr. Scruggs did not make a deal to cooperate," said Holleman. "He had an open plea, meaning he was going to plead guilty and the judge is going to sentence him without him agreeing to cooperate I assume against his son. That's the reason to do that."
"Mr. Backstrum who also pled guilty agreed to cooperate meaning he is going to testify more than likely. The only case that I can see him testifying in is Zach Scruggs' case."
Scruggs' fame would have made the bribery case national news on its own, but his family ties to retired Senator Trent Lott added to the intrigue and speculation since the story broke. Lott's wife and Scruggs' wife are sisters.
The Scruggs indictment came just two days after Lott's surprise announcement he would retire from the U.S. Senate. Federal prosecutors denied any connection in the two events, but as the case against Scruggs unfolded, Trent Lott's name kept coming up.
Another judge Bobby DeLaughter, said he was approached about ruling in Scruggs' favor with the promise of using Scruggs' connection to Lott to get DeLaughter's name in for a federal judgeship.
Then, prosecutors and defense attorneys said they planned to call Lott to testify if the case against Dickie Scruggs went to trial. After the guilty pleas, the federal government dropped underlying charges wire fraud against Dickie Scruggs and Backstrum.
To view the entire plea agreement, click here.
To view the fact basis document, clic here.