- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Richard “Dickie” Scruggs, the legendary trial lawyer who made big business sit up and take notice when he set foot in court, pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring to bribe a judge — a crime that will almost surely send him to prison and perhaps spell the end of his storied legal career.

Federal prosecutors are asking for the maximum of five years behind bars for the 61-year-old Scruggs, the multimillionaire “King of Torts” who combined a shrewd legal mind and the aw-shucks charm of a Southern country lawyer to extract billion-dollar settlements from the tobacco and asbestos industries, among others.

He could also lose his license to practice law.

Scruggs and another lawyer in his firm, Sidney Backstrom, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud for offering a $50,000 cash bribe to a Mississippi judge for a favorable ruling in a dispute over legal fees from a Hurricane Katrina insurance lawsuit.

In return for Scruggs’ guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to drop several other counts against him, including fraud. No sentencing date was set.

Scruggs’ son and law partner, Zach, also is charged in the case but did not enter a plea and is expected to go to trial.

For months, Scruggs appeared intent on fighting the charges, and many reporters who had closely followed the case were caught off-guard by the plea bargain. Scruggs folded after two of his co-defendants turned on him, one of them secretly tape-recording him for the FBI.

Federal prosecutors refused to comment, and Scruggs’ attorneys did not immediately return calls yesterday.

A giant of the nation’s plaintiffs’ bar, Scruggs was a chief architect of the $206 billion nationwide tobacco settlement in the 1990s, working with whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, a former tobacco company scientist. The actor Colm Feore portrayed Scruggs in the 1999 movie about the case, “The Insider,” starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

After Katrina struck in 2005, Scruggs sued insurance companies on behalf of hundreds of homeowners whose claims were denied.

Scruggs has been “the bane of Wall Street,” and leaders of some of the companies he sued might take satisfaction in his downfall, said Stephen Gillers, a New York University law professor and authority on legal ethics. Scruggs was indicted along with his son and three associates in November.

They were accused of conspiring to bribe Lafayette County Circuit Judge Henry L. Lackey, who was overseeing a dispute between Scruggs and other lawyers over $26.5 million in legal fees from a mass settlement of Katrina cases.

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