JACKSON, MS (AP) - A judge known for successfully prosecuting a white supremacist decades after a civil rights-era killing pleaded not guilty Thursday to five federal charges in an unrelated judicial bribery scheme that has snared some of the state's wealthiest attorneys.
Mississippi Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter was influenced with a promise that former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott would help him get appointed to the federal bench, according to an eight-page indictment unsealed Thursday. Lott has not been accused of wrongdoing.
DeLaughter, a judge in Hinds County, which includes Jackson, is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and obstruction. His arraignment in U.S. District Court in Oxford came just two days after Lott's brother-in-law, noted anti-tobacco attorney Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, pleaded guilty to mail fraud charges.
DeLaughter's attorney did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press.
DeLaughter presided over a bitter dispute among Scruggs and other lawyers over millions of dollars in fees from asbestos litigation. Scruggs, a chief architect of the multibillion-dollar tobacco settlements of the 1990s, has admitted he was involved in a scheme to entice DeLaughter to rule in his favor by promising he'd be appointed to the federal bench. Lott talked to DeLaughter but ultimately recommended someone else for the job.
Scruggs was already serving five years for conspiring to bribe a north Mississippi judge when investigators began taking a hard look at the DeLaughter case. A plea deal in which Scruggs admitted trying to influence DeLaughter added two years to Scruggs' sentence Tuesday.
Prosecutors say Scruggs and his associates exploited DeLaughter's weaknesses: his relationship with his mentor, former Hinds County District Attorney Ed Peters, and his desire to be a federal judge. Scruggs and the others hired Peters, DeLaughter's old boss and close friend, to influence him behind the scenes, according to the indictment.
From August 2005 to August 2006, DeLaughter "secretly and corruptly communicated with the Scruggs legal team through Ed Peters, affording them a unique and valuable opportunity to foresee and attempt to influence his rulings," the indictment says.
Others allegedly involved in the scheme are former Mississippi Auditor Steve Patterson and two disbarred attorneys, Joey Langston and Timothy Balducci. Langston also has pleaded guilty to trying to influence DeLaughter on Scruggs' behalf.
Balducci and Patterson pleaded guilty to conspiring to bribe a different judge and have been cooperating in the investigation. Langston said he directed $1 million to Peters to help persuade DeLaughter to rule in Scruggs' favor. The government has seized $425,000 from Peters, which is all they say is left after taxes and stock market losses.
Peters has not been charged and has not returned calls for comment.
DeLaughter was once an assistant district attorney under Peters. They made headlines in 1994 by successfully prosecuting Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers. The case was portrayed in the 1996 movie "Ghosts of Mississippi" and DeLaughter wrote a book about the trial.