Over the years, Richard F. “Dickie” Scruggs earned a reputation as one of the nation’s wiliest and most powerful plaintiff’s attorneys. Along the way he was hailed as a champion of the little guy. He was also derided as a scoundrel who would stoop as low as necessary to get his way — and fatten his bank account.
On Friday, his critics rested their case in the court of public opinion. The storied Mississippi lawyer — the man who engineered the monumental tobacco settlement of the 1990s, then took on Big Insurance after Hurricane Katrina — pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he conspired to bribe a judge.
It was the second time this week that an immensely powerful man was brought low by temptation and transgression. In the case of New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, it was a sex scandal involving call girls. To some observers, Scruggs’ case was more baffling: A man who had amassed one of the most formidable fortunes in Mississippi was indicted for orchestrating a $50,000 bribe to a judge deciding how to divide $26.5 million in attorneys’ fees.
It was money he almost certainly didn’t need.
“Dick Scruggs’ genius was he figured out how to make a lot of money doing a lot of good for a lot of people,” said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington advocacy group.
“The irony is that . . . the lawyer who revealed how many other lawyers buried documents and were complicit in the tobacco industry’s cover-up is the only one who is likely to go to jail,” Myers said.
Scruggs’ guilty plea came during a hearing Friday in federal court in Oxford, Miss., where his law firm commands a prominent place in the central square. Sidney A. Backstrom, an attorney in Scruggs’ firm, pleaded guilty to a similar conspiracy charge.
Prosecutors are to recommend a five-year sentence for Scruggs and 2 1/2 years for Backstrom. Without the plea deal, Scruggs could have faced up to 75 years in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.
The Mississippi Bar Assn. said it would seek “immediate suspension and ultimately disbarment” for the two.
“It’s very troubling that someone of Scruggs’ legal ability and stature would stoop to conspire to influence a judge’s decision,” said Robert R. Bailess, the bar president.
Scruggs’ son, attorney David Zachary Scruggs, is also charged in the conspiracy but did not enter a plea Friday. A trial is scheduled for March 31.
A brother-in-law of former Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Dickie Scruggs moved in powerful circles. The legendary lawyer flew around on a private jet and gave lavishly to political candidates and the University of Mississippi, which named a music building after him.