The Fall of the House of Zeus

 

ALSO BY CURTIS WILKIE

Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events That
Shaped the Modern South

Arkansas Mischief: The Birth of a National Scandal

(with Jim McDougal)

Copyright © 2010 by Curtis Wilkie

All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
www.crownpublishing.com

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Wilkie, Curtis.
   The fall of the house of Zeus / Curtis Wilkie.—1st ed.
          p. cm.
1. Scruggs, Dickie. 2. Lawyers—Mississippi—Biography. 3. Judicial corruption—Mississippi—History I. Scruggs, Dickie. II. Title.
   KF373.S342W55 2010
   340.092—dc22
   [B]

2010004503

eISBN: 978-0-307-46072-1

See
this page
for photograph insert credits.

v3.1

For Nancy

Contents
Principal Characters
The Defendants

Dick Scruggs, wealthy trial lawyer and engineer of groundbreaking tobacco lititgation

Zach Scruggs, his son and law partner

Sid Backstrom, junior partner in the Scruggs Law Firm

Tim Balducci, ambitious lawyer who envisioned a superfirm

Steve Patterson, former state auditor, Democratic chairman, and Balducci’s partner

Joey Langston, prominent lawyer specializing in criminal defense and plaintiff lawsuits

Bobby DeLaughter, state judge and former prosecutor who helped convict assassin Byron De La Beckwith

Their Antagonists

Johnny Jones, Jackson lawyer who sued Scruggs Katrina Group

Grady Tollison, Oxford attorney who represented Jones

Alwyn Luckey, former Scruggs partner in Asbestos Group

Roberts Wilson, former member of Asbestos Group

Charlie Merkel, Clarksdale attorney who represented both Luckey and Wilson in lawsuits against Scruggs

George Dale, state insurance commissioner driven from office by Scruggs

Henry Lackey, state judge who reported improper approach by Balducci

The Prosecutors

Jim Greenlee, U.S. attorney in Oxford

John Hailman, prosecutor who initiated the investigation before retiring

Tom Dawson, chief deputy in U.S. Attorney’s Office

Bob Norman, who took charge of the Scruggs case after Dawson’s retirement

The Defense Lawyers

John Keker, San Francisco attorney representing Dick Scruggs

Mike Moore, former Mississippi attorney general and close friend of Scruggs who represented Zach Scruggs

Frank Trapp, Jackson attorney representing Sid Backstrom

Rhea Tannehill, Oxford friend and attorney for Backstrom

Tony Farese, attorney who first represented Zach Scruggs, and then, Langston

The Players in “The Force”

Trent Lott, Scruggs’s brother-in-law and onetime Republican majority leader in the U.S. Senate

Tom Anderson, Lott’s longtime associate in Washington

P. L. Blake, a figure in their Mississippi network

Ed Peters, former district attorney in Jackson

Pete Johnson, former state auditor

The Political Figures Outside “The Force”

Jim Hood, attorney general of Mississippi

Danny Cupit, former Democratic chairman and influential Jackson attorney

Joe Biden, former U.S. senator from Delaware, now vice-president of the United States

The Judge

Neal Biggers, senior U.S. district judge in Oxford

The Wife, Mother, and Sister-in-Law

Diane Scruggs, Dick’s wife; Zach’s mother; Trent’s sister-in-law

The Chancellor

Robert Khayat, leader of the University of Mississippi for fourteen years

“Abide in silence,” the cloud-gatherer Zeus said, “and obey what I say, for now all the gods of Olympus will be of no avail when I come closer and lay my invincible hands upon you.” His queen, Hera, was afraid, and she sat down in silence, wrenching her heart to obedience, and the gods in heaven were troubled in the House of Zeus.

—Homer’s
The Iliad

PREFACE

A
long with much of Oxford, I was savoring the news that Ole Miss had secured the services of football coach Houston Nutt, five days after Thanksgiving 2007, when that headline was overtaken by a breaking story with greater significance. Rick Cleveland, a sports columnist for Jackson’s
Clarion-Ledger
in town for Nutt’s press conference, called me to say, “Your buddy’s been indicted.” I could find the first, sketchy details on his newspaper’s website: Dick Scruggs had just been arraigned in federal court on charges of bribing a judge.

The news of the indictment of Scruggs, a take-no-prisoners trial lawyer of international repute, a power player in state and national politics, and a major benefactor of the University of Mississippi, was shocking. My initial reaction was similar to that of others who knew Scruggs. As John Grisham told
The Wall Street Journal
, “This doesn’t sound like the Dickie Scruggs that I know. When you know Dickie and how successful he has been, you could not believe he would be involved in such a boneheaded bribery scam that is not in the least bit sophisticated.”

In the two decades since Scruggs first drew blood from the asbestos industry and then brought Big Tobacco to its knees in litigation that produced hundreds of millions of dollars for himself and his clients, he had developed powerful enemies. At the time, he was locked in an epic
struggle with his most formidable opponent to date—the American insurance industry—in a series of bristling lawsuits growing out of Hurricane Katrina. Though he had backed a few Republicans (most notably his brother-in-law, Mississippi senator Trent Lott), Scruggs was best known for his support of Democratic candidates. Upon learning of his indictment, there were celebrations in the corridors of chambers of commerce and Republican headquarters across the country.

Scruggs’s indictment came while Mississippi was recoiling from Lott’s announcement, only the day before, that he would resign from office. As a Republican leader in the Senate, Lott was one of the most influential men in Washington. If Lott’s resignation and Scruggs’s arrest were coincidental, it strained credibility.

As the investigation widened to draw in other important figures, the story grew even more intriguing. The chief U.S. attorney, Jim Greenlee, called it a “Greek tragedy.”

In nearly forty years as a newspaper reporter, I had covered the civil rights movement, eight presidential campaigns, and numerous overseas conflicts. Even though I had retired at the conclusion of the 2000 election and become a member of the faculty at the University of Mississippi, it occurred to me that this might be the story of my lifetime.

Two months after the first arrests in the case, with a trial quickly approaching, I dropped Dick a note telling him of my interest in writing a book. “I appreciate that you have to be guarded in anything you say regarding the case, but at some point I would hope we could talk about it,” I wrote. “I still remember your candor and cooperation when we first met ten years ago and I was working on a story for
The
Boston Globe
that dealt with the Luckey-Wilson case.” Ten years later, the repercussions from that case were factors in Scruggs’s current dilemma. In the intervening years, Dick and I had both moved to Oxford, and I had gotten to know him better.

A couple of days after I sent him the note, he called. It was a gray and wintry Sunday. My wife and I were on our way to a Super Bowl party to watch the local hero, Eli Manning, lead the New York Giants to the NFL title. Scruggs was a big football fan, and we talked a bit about the game that would begin in a couple of hours. Then he said, “I got your letter.”

“Hey, Dick,” I told him, “I’ve always operated on the presumption of innocence” as a journalist dealing with defendants in criminal cases.

“Hell, I do, too,” he blurted. But his laugh carried no humor. He said
he was reluctant to talk about the case now. Maybe at some point down the road.

Oxford is a small town, and we saw Dick and his wife, Diane, at a dinner party a few days later. No one mentioned his case, though it hovered over the table conversation like a spectral presence.
Afterward, I got a note from him. “Although you don’t need my ‘permission’ to write on this sordid affair, I just don’t feel right about the appearance of exploiting it.” Since he grew up in a south Mississippi county adjacent to my childhood home, he attributed his sense of awkwardness to: “Maybe it’s a Lincoln County thing?” To put me off further, he added, “Enjoyed Saturday night at the Boones’ with you and Nancy. A book needs to be written about how you got Nancy to fall for you.”

Without any assurance that Scruggs would ever talk on the record with me, I began my book project, following newspaper and magazine accounts, interviewing individuals involved in the case, gathering court documents, collecting information that had never been made public. Drawing on old Mississippi connections, I interviewed dozens of people on all sides of the ugly conflict.

Meanwhile, the Scruggs story went through several convulsions over the next few months.

It became increasingly apparent to me that this was a remarkable story of personal treachery, clandestine political skullduggery, enormous professional hatred within the legal community, a zealous prosecution—all with ramifications that extended to high levels in Washington.

In the summer of 2008, Dick’s only son and junior law partner, Zach, who faced prison himself, began to talk with me. He spoke, for hours, of the villainy he felt the federal government had committed during its investigation. He talked, too, of many other things.

One day Zach and I went to lunch, and Dick joined us. It became clear that Dick now wanted to give me his perspective. We began a series of long interviews. Sometimes at his home, sometimes at mine. One day, he sat in our living room and talked, while I took notes, from midmorning until evening. He made many jocular asides, but as darkness began to gather us in gloom, he sighed and said, “My life is over.” He and Zach and others with whom I talked went off to prison. I made visits to them in confinement. I continued to talk to others: prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, lawyers, political leaders, academic lions, close friends of Scruggs as well as implacable enemies. I found that I
had tapped into an extraordinary outpouring of emotions. In the spring of 2009, Scruggs was returned to the Lafayette County jail in Oxford to appear before a grand jury, and I got together with him again. As I was leaving the room where we met, he folded his hands and asked, “When all this is over, are you going to be able to tell me how I got mixed up with these guys?”

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